As workers capture COVID-19, economic stress is forcing some restaurants in Detroit to remain open

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The Detroit bar The Skip recently closed temporarily as COVID-19 cases rose sharply.  - EVAN GONZALEZ, DETROIT AKTIEBY

  • Evan Gonzalez, Detroit Stock City
  • The Detroit bar The Skip recently closed temporarily as COVID-19 cases rose sharply.

When the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 swept across Michigan ahead of the holiday, restaurants were among the first and hardest hit when employees tested positive during the industry’s busiest time of the year. It has forced restaurateurs to choose between shutting down and giving up much-needed revenue or staying open and playing with the health of employees and diners.

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To make matters worse, the wave hit an industry already suffering from nearly two years of lower sales, increased food costs, labor shortages and inadequate public assistance. At this point in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the recommendations of local health departments are merely proposals and have already moved in the middle of the wave, leaving it to diners to weigh the risks. The business is already diving significantly, say restaurateurs Metro Times.

“Restaurants operate at knife-thin margins, and it’s so brutal right now,” said Grand Trunk Pub and Checker Bar owner Tim Tharp, co-founder of the Detroit Restaurant and Lodging Association, which has closed its stores twice in recent weeks following positive COVID test among his employees. “Every operator has to do what they see as right, and they’ll have to balance a lot of things.”

Before Christmas, Detroit restaurants Selden Standard and Flowers of Vietnam announced on social media that staff had tested positive and that the restaurants would temporarily close. Since then, Detroit has announced Vegan Soul, Sister Pie, The Skip and other temporary closures, either because staff were tested positive or to give employees a break. Pie Sci and Ocher Bakery has recently closed their dining rooms and only performs temporary delivery.

In Midtown, Chartreuse took a different approach. One of its employees worked the weekend up to Christmas while he was slightly ill, and several days later he was tested positive for COVID, Metro Times have learned. The restaurant did not close after the positive test, required tests for other employees who were exposed, or warned customers. Other restaurants have reportedly taken a similar approach.

When Chartreuse owner Sandy Levine was contacted by a journalist, he claims that he had followed the CDC’s recommendations, even though the agency at the time had recommended that sick employees not work and that those who had been exposed to COVID should stay home. , which the restaurant did not follow. .

Levine notes that all of his staff have been vaccinated, saying he ultimately chose to stay open because the restaurant “would go bankrupt” if it continued to close. He stresses that he has created a safe environment for his staff throughout the pandemic, adding that he has at times gone beyond the CDC’s recommendations.

“If it was a year ago and the vaccination was not out, or if omicron caused hospitalizations in a way that [other variants] did, then I would be okay with the restaurant going bankrupt to keep our staff safe, ”he says. “All restaurants deal with this, and some have to deal with it in different ways.”

The latest variant of the virus appears to be less likely to cause serious illness, and that is one of the many factors that restaurants need to consider when deciding whether to close, Tharp says.

As several Grand Trunk employees tested positive after Christmas, Tharp considered safety, the financial hit, and whether the already bare-bones staff could provide good service with even more employees out there. He took input from staff before finally deciding to close for two days, and paid for staff to be tested.

“If we tried to stay open, we would not give the customers the service they needed and we would not overwork the staff and have a house full of angry customers, which would really have hurt everyone, so we basically voted and decided to close, ”says Tharp.

He stresses the importance of including staff in the decision-making process, adding “it goes a long way if employees feel you are taking their safety into account.”

Safety and burnout seem to be on the minds of many restaurateurs. Detroit Vegan Soul announced on social media that it is shutting down “self-care.” The Skip conveyed a similar sentiment in its announcement that it would close for two weeks after New Year’s Eve.

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Detroit's Sister Pie recently closed due to COVID-19 cases among staff.  - HANNAH ERVIN, DETROIT STOCK CITY

  • Hannah Ervin, Detroit Stock City
  • Detroit’s Sister Pie recently closed due to COVID-19 cases among staff.

“It is an important principle at The Skip to provide the highest quality service, and we can not do that when our team is not working at their best,” the post states. “In an effort to support the wonderful people who make The Skip what it is, we have decided to close January 1st – 13th and give our team a paid vacation.”

Sister Pie’s dining room has been closed in recent months, and the restaurant still decided to close the entire operation after several employees became ill, citing health risks and burdens on the remaining staff.

“Just this afternoon, we learned that at least two employees have been exposed to positive cases, plus another has been home all week with symptoms,” the restaurant’s post on social media read. “We can not take the health risk or demand that the rest of our staff work harder than they have already done. We imagine it could feel frustrating and disappointing if you were planning to come by for a visit. We are also so tired of this. ”

But some restaurants face financial situations that make that approach difficult. The problems have been exacerbated by government assistance efforts such as the Paycheck Protection Program, which did not serve restaurants well, and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which was slammed by the Small Business Administration. It made $ 29 billion in grants available for the country’s restaurants, but the SBA only distributed the funds to 100,000 out of 300,000 applicants using what New York Times characterized as “whoreful method of determining winners and losers.”

The Biden administration has recently said it is open to more relief in the restaurant industry, and there is bipartisan support for it in the Senate, but even if more aid is approved, there is nothing to say about whether it will include enough money to go around or how the funding will be distributed.

Meanwhile, restaurants have to function as if there is no help on the way, and when an employee is tested positive for COVID, it can weigh heavily on a restaurateur. Those who choose to remain open should not be “insulted,” Tharp says.

“It’s an impossible situation they are facing,” he adds. “I do not think there is a right or wrong answer.”

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