Michigan bars, restaurants reopen with tight capacity limit

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — After 75 days of empty chairs and tables, restaurants were able to reopen their dining rooms Monday.

Under new restrictions, restaurants may operate at 25% capacity. Tables will have to be spread 6 feet apart and businesses will have to close by 10 p.m. to prioritize sanitization overnight. Customers have to give their name and number in case the need for contact tracing allows. Owners have also made some of their own changes aimed at keeping diners safe.

Breakfast joints were busy Monday morning. At New Beginnings along Michigan Street in Grand Rapids, pancakes were on the griddle, eggs were scrambled and masks were on full display.

Mitigation protocols have added work for the wait staff, which is already stretched thin, but they say it’s worth it to see their loyal customers again. 

“It feels really good. Real good. We have a lot of people, including myself, that we just don’t know what to do with ourselves because we’re so used to going to work — enjoy what we do and all of sudden it gets taken away from us and then what?” New Beginnings President Doug Kacos said. “So, I feel good about having the vaccine out there, hopefully, they speed that along. I think people will feel even better if they have that going on to be able to come in here now that they don’t have to worry about getting something. I’m hopeful things pan out.”

Roughly one third of area establishments opted not to open dining rooms yet because the 25% limitation won’t offset operating costs. Those that did open are being honest about what business looks like under the new restrictions.

“It’s really about the employees,” John Jermstad, who owns Birch Lodge on Michigan Street in Grand Rapids’ Midtown area, said, acknowledging no one can profit under current capacity restrictions. “Getting them enough hours and getting enough business in here to make it feasible for them to work here, 20% to 25% is real tough. Not all of them will get enough hours or any hours.”

Birch suffered a major setback a few years ago when a fire shut the business down for nearly a year.

“We were closed for 10 months,” Jermstad said. “That was easier. That was way easier than this.”

The 10 p.m. curfew also adversely impacts Birch and other bars like it.

“It’s just not economically feasible to open at 25% and close at 10 o’clock,” Jermstad said. “A lot of bars and restaurants in Grand Rapids do a pretty good amount of business after 10 o’clock. We got to get started somehow, so trying to be positive about it.”

That leery optimism could be felt down the street at Grand Coney as well. It’s one of a dozen local restaurants owned by Jeff Lobdell.

“At this time last year, we had 20 restaurants and 600 employees and as of last week we had 17 restaurants, only 11 of which were open, and we only had 60 people working. So by opening the dining rooms 25%, we’ve brought 200 people back to work,” Lobdell explained.

He spent the morning checking on his different locations that opened for dine-in service, including Pete’s Tavern and Beltline Bar.

“Our staff have missed each other so much,” Lobdell said. “They’ve been displaced since before even Thanksgiving, 75 days, and our guests have been emotional. A lot of these restaurants, the staff are like family together and the guests are like close relatives, so it’s really good to have people back in the buildings.”

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