It was a rough fall and winter for Michigan restaurants. State leaders, worried about rising Covid-19 cases in the cold months, limited indoor and even some forms of outdoor dining, beginning in November. As of March 2021, restaurants and bars are allowed to open indoor dining to 50% capacity. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has proposed a plan that ties dining capacity to the percentage of adult Michiganders who have been vaccinated, a move that drew applause from the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association.
Two weeks after 70% of Michigan adults get their vaccinations, the state will resume 100% capacity indoor dining — in time, hopefully, for the precious summer months to feel relaxing. Finally, maybe, restaurant and bar life in Michigan may be getting back to something approaching normal. If you’re operating a restaurant in Michigan, or jumping back into the game after sitting out the winter, here’s what you’ll need to know to get up and running smoothly.
Congratulations, Michigan, on having an unusually thorough, transparent, and accessible set of reopening guides courtesy of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association. It has your checklist-basics on topics around social distancing, managing food delivery and pickup, and making sure that everyone who comes into your establishment (especially vendors who may be visiting multiple restaurants a day) is symptom-free.
The basic rules for dining indoors are going to be familiar to anyone who’s been out of the house much lately. Parties can’t be larger than six people; they must have seats; and they have to be distanced from other parties. People should wear masks when they’re not eating. You should get a contact from each party in case there’s an outbreak that needs to be traced. And the show’s over at 11pm each night.
The outdoor dining specifications are pretty strict, and will take some time to absorb. The state has rules on where you can put walls and roofs, as well as how close diners may be seated. Check out the state’s diagram of an outdoor seating enclosure to get a sense of how you want to proceed.
Even if you don’t live there, you might scan Detroit’s guide to outdoor dining. If you do live there, you’re definitely going to want to brush up on the new procedures and rules that dictate how and where you can build outdoor dining spaces.
The race is on for your share of the $29 billion that will flow to businesses through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF). Get on it, if you haven’t already. After the first 21 days, when restaurants with women and BIPOC owners will get preference, the money will be first-come, first-serve, though there are carveouts for smaller businesses, so you’re not competing directly against the biggest operators when you apply. Michigan business owners should get in line pronto.
Michigan’s advice on getting back up to full speed is uncommonly thorough. It invites you to consider not just the sorts of outward-facing social distancing measures and signage that will seem, by this point, pretty intuitive. It also suggests considering whether the menu you had pre-pandemic is the one you want to roll with now. For instance: Do the items on your menu fit the setup of your kitchen, allowing workers to avoid a lot of physical contact? Are there things on your menu that take a great deal of time to prepare — perhaps slowing table turnover at a time when it’s better for diners not to linger too long indoors?
It also reminds you not to take for granted that your vendors are still operating at their former full capacity (if they’re still operating at all). The price and availability of ingredients may look different now.
You’re going to want to appoint a key person on each shift to cover and oversee the new responsibilities that Covid safeguards demand. Those areas, roughly, fall under the headings of environmental disinfection, publicity and education, and materials preparation.
The EPA has an approved list of cleaning products to use against Covid that you may want to consult before stocking up.
The National Restaurant Association has made free a course of Covid safety videos (with some in Spanish) to prepare your staff for the new realities around keeping everything sanitary. Your biggest short-term concern is probably going to be PPE: providing it, keeping it fresh, making sure people actually use it. The last thing anyone wants to wear in a hot kitchen is a face covering. But that’s where we are these days.
Checklists are a fine and helpful thing when you’re trying to establish new habits. You can get a two-pager for reopening procedures and a five-pager for cleaning and sanitation from the state’s restaurant association. And you can always get a bevvy of managerial checklists from the state health department.
For as wild as the pandemic has made operating a restaurant, the best practices around digital marketing for restaurants have also changed. With weather warming, Michiganders getting vaccinated, and an upbeat mood to the coming summer, you’d do well to match it with your marketing efforts.
The state’s rules are clear and specific, so customers will know to expect new rules and procedures when they arrive. So remind people that you’re taking safety seriously, then get right to whatever it is that makes your restaurant special. No matter the reason people are getting together these days, they’re coming to you to make it a real occasion.