On Jan. 22 — six days after the first case of the COVID-19 B.1.1.7 variant was first detected in Washtenaw County — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced indoor dining could resume at 25% capacity on Feb. 1. Just three days after the announcement, the Washtenaw County Health Department imposed a stay in place recommendation on the University of Michigan.
Now that businesses can finally open, the stay in place recommendation has introduced further complications. This resumption comes after nearly three months of restaurants being restricted to takeout and outdoor dining under Gov. Whitmer’s Nov. 15 “Pause to Save Lives” executive order, which was met with frustration from local business owners.
The stay in place recommendation, which is similar in structure to the October 2020 stay at home order, asks students not to leave their residences except for essential activities such as in-person classes, work or research that cannot be completed remotely, obtaining food or medical care and other approved activities until 11:59 P.M on Feb. 7. Unlike the first order, however, the recommendation didn’t explicitly ban indoor dining.
Jerusalem Garden owner Ali Ramlawi, a City Council member for Ward 5, said the stay in place recommendation didn’t impact his business nearly as drastically as the October order, mostly because they have only been open for outdoor or carry out dining since June.
“We’re not seeing a noticeable decrease — maybe a 5-10% drop,” Ramlawi said. “It has been a little slower, but it’s hard to pinpoint when you’re not doing much in sales.”
LSA freshman Meredith Dirkman said while she plans to avoid sit-down restaurants and utilize takeout until the stay-at-home recommendation expires, she is comfortable with the steps restaurants have taken to keep guests safe and would be willing to eat at one.
“Since the (stay in place recommendation) I’ve gotten (takeout) and that’s it,” Dirkman said. “But I think that I will go to restaurants more (once the order ends).”
In contrast, LSA freshman Annie Cress has ruled out going to a restaurant for indoor dining regardless of the stay in place recommendation and said she has reservations about whether or not restaurants would actually be able to stop the spread.
“I don’t feel 100% comfortable, it really depends on what the restaurants are doing with their (safety) guidelines,” Cress said. “But I do get takeout to support local businesses.”
Adam Baru, owner of Isalita and Mani Osteria, said that with the current situation, he doesn’t feel comfortable opening his restaurant to indoor dining. Baru, whose restaurant is fairly reliant on student life, said there is a certain experience one gets when coming to his restaurant. If all of his guests and employees are not entirely comfortable at his restaurant, then he is not going to open.
“Opening and closing and opening and closing is really hard on a restaurant,” Baru said. “I’d rather wait until we’re out of the woods to be at the point where scales tip in favor of safety instead of being open because we want or need to be open.”
Baru also acknowledged his business was privileged enough to not have to worry about finances, as he is certain they will survive until the vaccine is widely available.
The University’s plans for Winter 2021 influenced some business owners’ decision on whether or not to resume indoor dining. The plans, which were announced in an email from University President Schlissel on Nov. 6, consisted of the vast majority of classes being conducted online and reduced occupancy in U-M residence halls.
Jared Hoffman, owner of Salads UP on E. Liberty St., estimated that students made up almost 70% of his clientele, and not having them on campus was a factor in his decision to transition away from a sit-down establishment and towards a grab-and-go style restaurant.
“Ann Arbor, we’re really a college town,” Hoffman said. “The campus was built here for student life and the students really drive business traffic. I totally understand (the University’s decision), but when you lose X amount of students, the whole economy and the town is affected.”
Hoffman also said sticking with a grab-and-go and outdoor-dining-only model enabled Salads UP to avoid some of the inconsistency issues that came with Gov. Whitmer’s restaurant closures as well as the October order and January recommendation.
“We just said to ourselves, ‘This probably isn’t going to work the old way we were doing it for a while, so why not just embrace what’s happening in the best way we can,’” Hoffman said. “So I’d say we’ve been less affected than other restaurants have been.”
Ramlawi also spoke to concerns of a lack of students on campus this semester. Ramlawi, who said that Jerusalem Garden’s sales dip 20-30% when students go home for break in a typical year, said that he was initially very concerned about how the University’s winter semester was going to affect his business.
However, Ramlawi said he was optimistic since the number of students who found off-campus housing in spite of the University’s recommendation was sufficient to keep business afloat.
“I thought it was going to have a much more negative impact on sales than it did,” Ramlawi said. “We had a pretty decent January, considering.”
Daily Staff Reporter George Weykamp firstname.lastname@example.org
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