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Restaurants innovate following statewide ban on dine-in services
Eateries shift to takeout, heated outdoor dining spaces, igloos
ROCHESTER — Indoor dining has been temporarily banned across Michigan in an effort to curb COVID-19, leaving local restaurateurs with no other option but to get creative to retain business.
The temporary shutdown of dine-in services — which is slated to last three weeks beginning Nov. 18 — is part of a new emergency order issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that restricts bars and restaurants to carry-out, delivery and outdoor dining services only.
MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said indoor gatherings are the greatest source of spreading COVID-19, so the department is laser focused on sharply limiting them.
“The order is targeted and temporary, but a terrible loss of life will be forever unless we act. By coming together today, we can save thousands of lives,” Gordon said in a statement.
As restaurants across the state rush to spruce up their outdoor spaces in compliance with state regulations, the definitions of indoor and outdoor dining have become increasingly important.
According to the state health department’s website, indoor dining is defined as “a space enclosed fully or partially on the top, and enclosed fully or partially on more than one side,” which health officials said includes most buildings, garages, vehicles and temporary structures such as tents or canopies with sidewalls or coverings — unless they’re open on three sides.
As for outdoor dining, igloos, huts and other small, enclosed spaces are allowed under state guidelines if groups are limited to six or fewer people from the same household per table and employees only enter spaces “fleetingly or not at all.”
Tony Lipuma, of Lipuma’s Coney Island in downtown Rochester, was prepared for the pivot.
“I knew this was coming,” he said. “And I knew I wanted to get more time to use our deck, so I put heaters on the wall to heat the deck.”
On Nov. 18, the first day indoor dining was halted, the hometown eatery was reaping the benefits of it’s newly heated outdoor dining space, plentiful takeout orders and busy curbside service.
“Today, it’s like a summer day out here. We’re filled,” Lipuma said of the outdoor deck, which includes new furniture spaced 6 feet apart. “I just want to get us through to the holidays.”
The new order, Lipuma said, is “very discouraging” for restaurateurs.
“It’s very sad. I think the governor could have done this a different way. … I don’t see the big harm in keeping the restaurants open. Everybody is wearing their masks, they are distancing — our tables on the deck are all 6 feet apart — I don’t see the danger with that,” he added.
Lipuma said he’s fortunate enough to own the building occupied by the hot dog shop, which has been open since 1969 in downtown Rochester. He’s more worried about the local restaurants who still have to pay their rent.
“This is the time of year — for 90% of the restaurants — this is where they make their money to get them through until summer. I don’t know what these guys are going to do. It’s very sad,” he said.
Tim Brinker, who owns Chomp Eatery and Juicery with his daughter Ashley Koval, is expecting the ban on indoor dining to last much more than three weeks.
“We’re anticipating that it’s going to go on until after Christmas and after the New Year. I don’t believe three weeks is going to change anything,” he said.
To help maintain business during the ban, Brinker also decided to add heating, custom-made plastic “windows” and a storm door to the deli’s outdoor dining area — which has an open-air top.
“It’s unique,” he said. “I’m hoping that it works and I’m hoping that everybody will still come to eat at our 25 seats out there, which are spaced far enough apart to meet regulations.”
Those who prefer to enjoy their meals at home, he said, can take advantage of Chomp’s contactless ordering at chompeats.com and curbside pickup.
“I’m hoping that we, with the one or two other places that are going to be open outside, will make some (money). I’m not going to be rich, but I’m hoping to at least keep all my employees, pay all my employees and pay all the rent and everything else,” he said. “It’s a strange time.”
Over at the Royal Park Hotel, the PARK 600 Terrace has been transformed with six snow globes, which are available for small group rentals through the winter season.
“Everything about this year has taught us to press on and pivot, creating experiences and every day luxury for our guests,” Royal Park Hotel General Manager Sue Keels said in a statement. “Our Snow Globe experience is the next installment of that luxury.”
The snow globe rentals include a three-hour experience, including an exclusive menu and bar cart, followed by the option to finish the evening off with one of chef Mark Slessor’s Campfire S’more skillets or a dessert charcuterie board. Overnight accommodations for two are included for Thursday-Saturday rentals.
Sponsored by Flagstar Bank, the snow globe rentals run through March 31.
“This season is throwing the hospitality industry a curveball, and the Royal Park is facing it down with typical style and panache,” Reggie Davis, president of banking for Flagstar, said in a statement. “We welcome the opportunity to support a long-time client in bringing what really is a unique dining experience to Rochester and the greater metro area. I can’t wait to try it.”
Although downtown Rochester eateries weren’t too happy about the new order, Downtown Development Authority Director Kristi Trevarrow said they were well prepared this time around.
“When we had the first shutdown in the spring, our restaurants did a really great job of shifting the focus of their business to carryout and curbside and, in some cases, even delivery,” she said.
Trevarrow said the timing of the latest order is “unfortunate,” being that it’s during Rochester’s busiest season — the holidays.
“(Our restaurants are) going to do what they need to do, but they are really banking on the holiday season, because this is when all of our businesses — not just restaurants — make the lion’s share of their revenue for the year,” she explained. “The biggest comment I’ve heard is that they are hoping this three-week shutdown does what the state is hoping it will do, so that we can get back to business.”
For more information about downtown Rochester, including a carryout and delivery service guide, visit www.downtownrochestermi.com.
The latest information about the COVID-19 outbreak can be found at Michigan.gov/Coronavirus and CDC.gov/Coronavirus.