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A few restaurants considered resumption of dine-in service, change minds after state action (From 11/29/2020 Lapeer County Press)



Original posting HERE

LAPEER COUNTY — The Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) on Nov. 15 issued a three-week partial shutdown of businesses and limited the size of outdoor public gatherings until Dec. 8 in an effort to mitigate a surge in local and statewide COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The order, which among other things, prohibits dine-in services at restaurants, was and is controversial as many businesses and municipalities anticipate the order will be extended into 2021. Some owners argue the MDHHS order appears arbitrary in that some businesses can stay open while others are ordered closed.

Restaurants in particular have been hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many were closed for several months, others relied on takeout and drive-up food service.

The latest MDHHS order was effective Nov. 18. It again shut down bowling allies, bars, roller rinks, casinos and dine-in restaurant service. Allowed to stay open were retail stores, nail and tattoo salons, as well as exercise gyms provided they adhered to COVID-19 social distancing, mask-wearing and sanitizing requirements.

Pat Hingst, founder and co-owner of Woodchips Barbecue in downtown Lapeer, defied the MDHHS order and maintained dine-in service. On Wednesday, the state agency reported that it had fined the business $1,000 for the violation and $1,000 for every day that it continues dine-in service in violation of the state health department order.

Other restaurant owners in Lapeer County stood on the sideline to observe if there were consequences from state or local authorities on the decision by Woodchips to continue dine-in service. Initially, it appeared there weren’t any. Many, if not most, were empathetic and soon a few others joined in.

But then the MDHHS and the Michigan Liquor Control Commission brought the hammer down on businesses that violated the dine-in restriction. On Wednesday, the MDHHS fined Woodchips while three others in the state were notified their liquor license may be suspended.

As a result of a countywide directive issued by the Liquor Control Commission and MDHHS, Hingst announced that Woodchips has initiated a “Cease and Assist” campaign in response to the state’s cease and desist order. He said the restaurant will operate as a nonprofit organization, with all revenue during the current dine-in service restriction going toward employees and to support community organizations such as food-assistance programs.

In Lapeer, Daner’s Diner at the northwest corner of Genesee and Court streets, owned and operated by Dane and Barb Lubick reopened — if only for a couple of days. On Tuesday, The County Press visited the restaurant that has been open since 2011.

“It’s more of a community mental thing right now. After the most recent announcement (to cease dinein service until Dec. 8) I cried for two days,” said Barb while she greeted several “regulars” to the restaurant. “In the first round we got a PPP (Payroll Protection Program loan) and we got a grant from the Lapeer DDA (Downtown Development Authority). That’s all gone. We don’t have that this time, and we don’t know how long this is going to go on.”

Dane added, “We had no choice. We had to open. We need the income to stay in business.” However, after local and state health department guidance, Daner’s Diner has again suspended dine-in service and resumed take-out only business.

Jenni Hart-Friske, general manager of the North Branch Bar & Grill, said 2020 has been a difficult year and an emotional roller-coaster for she and her boss who had to lay off 40 employees between the North Branch location and Sawdust Corners Tavern on North Lapeer Road in Mayfield Township they also operate.

“We have loyal and regular customers. We make their day. We’re their family. They come here for a good meal and the friendship of talking with us,” said Friske. It has also been difficult due to less revenue at North Branch Bar & Grill, said Friske, to sponsor youth baseball teams and other functions — though they do what they can, including recent support of the Nov. 15 buck pole in North Branch.

They had planned to reopen to dine-in service. That changed with the MDHHS and Liquor Control citations and license suspension action against restaurants that were in violation of the epidemic order.

On Tuesday, posted on the North Branch Bar & Grill Facebook page, was the following message. “It is with deep regret we must announce we will no longer be open for dine-in services tomorrow. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Due to circumstances out of our control, we are no longer in a position to open our doors once more,” said Friske. “As optimistic as we were yesterday, we are just as defeated today. We are humbled by the support of our community, other local restaurants, and Michiganders alike. We hope our valued customers did not see our attempt of opening our dining room as an act against their safety, rather an act for our sustainability. We will continue our take-out services and appreciate all of our customers.”

Likewise, the mid-week action by the MDHHS and Liquor Control Commission, ended any thoughts of reopening dine-in service at E.G. Nick’s restaurant in Lapeer.

Owner Jeff Ryeson and his family own and operate five restaurants in southeast Michigan. “It’s killing me. These shutdowns and restrictions are killing me. We have a lot of employees who will be laid off again when the holidays are here. It’s very hard to tell people you have to lay them off,” said Ryeson.

While he wanted to reopen to dine-in service, he knew the consequences. “To jeopardize our restaurants with Liquor Control would be insane. We can’t do that,” he told The County Press on Tuesday, just minutes after he was contacted by Liquor Control and informed he could have his liquor license suspended if he goes ahead with announced plans to reopen.

Later that afternoon he posted online, “With a heavy heart and a lump in my throat I’ve decided not to reopen for indoor dining tomorrow. Unfortunately, there are factors that are out of my control and would result in us being shut down, defeating the reason to stay open and help out my staff. All I can think about is how horrible it’s going to be for some of them. I see how they struggle now and it breaks my heart.”

Ryeson continued, “I am so thankful for the outpouring of well-wishers and supporters. The overall comments were very positive and I thank you. We will continue with our take-out business and employ as many as we can. Please keep us and the other independent restaurants here in town in your hearts. Lapeer is a great community and it’s an honor to be here to serve you. On a happy note… next month is our 37th anniversary. Time flies.

Take care, be safe and we will be here for you.”

In Columbiaville, Rob Pittman, the executive chef and partner of Falcon’s Nest Family Dining on Water Street is equally grateful for regular customers and welcomes new ones to support the family business during these tough times.

“We recently closed down for two weeks because there were a lot of cases (COVID- 19) in the Columbiaville area. We wanted to protect our employees and customers. We just reopened last week to take-out only service,” said Pittman.

“We all (employees) tested negative and decided to reopen, but it’s been tough. This one (recent closure) was bad enough,” he added.

Just inside the front door of the Falcon’s Nest, they’ve constructed an 8×8-foot plexiglass enclosure in which customers enter to pick up their take-out order so there is no contact between patrons and employees.

“We have hand sanitizer inside and out of the entrance. “We’re doing everything we can to ensure safe service for our customers who we need more than ever.”

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