Michigan restaurants can’t eradicate COVID-19 by the time snow falls.
Instead, they’re concocting plans to cheat Mother Nature.
When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed restaurants to reopen this spring with 50% capacity limits, cities and business owners needed creativity and flexibility to find solutions. They moved tables onto sidewalks, streets and parking lots to accommodate the crowds they’re used to.
But those temporary solutions won’t last as the weather chills.
“We had this sort of ‘everyone rally together’ (phase),” said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. “It was not a ‘successful’ period, but that outdoor dining capacity is what made the difference between a lot of people surviving and going under. And that’s going by the wayside.”
The 50% capacity limit and 6-foot mandate between groups still exists, as Michigan’s COVID-19 numbers have diminished but not disappeared. Plus, some customers only feel comfortable dining outside, thanks to the current state of the pandemic.
The restaurant industry is worried what will happen once outdoor dining areas are closed for the season. A National Restaurant Association survey shows 23% of Michigan operators say it’s unlikely their restaurant will be in business six months from now.
Winslow is asking Whitmer to allow for more than 50% capacity in restaurants. Beyond that, Winslow said it’s going to take a second round of creativity for many to get by.
“This industry is in grave danger of not being able to make it,” Winslow said. “It’s already a low-profit industry.”
The intro of the igloo
One potential solution? Spherical outdoor eating spaces billed as “igloos.”
Deadwood Bar and Grill introduced igloos in 2018. What started as a luxury item may be what helps them survive the winter, Owner Victor Dzenowagis said.
“We would have done them anyway, because they’re successful in the wintertime,” Dzenowagis said. “But now they’re absolutely critical, because that 50% restriction inside is going to be absolutely brutal.”
There’s a variety of igloos out there, from cheap plastic to Plexiglas. Dzenowagis went with the best ones he could find, which are 14 feet in diameter, 14 feet tall and made of polycarbonate – the same material used in race car windshields.
“It’s spectacular, particularly when it’s snowing,” he said. “It’s a way to cheat Mother Nature.”
You can drink beer this winter in igloos all over Michigan
In the first 24 hours of taking igloo reservations for this winter, Deadwood has 1,000 blocks reserved. Weekends through mid-January are already full.
“You’re looking up and snow’s hitting the igloo and we’ve got twinkling lights and it’s all decorated and it’s toasty inside and you’re playing your favorite music and eating and drinking,” Dzenowagis said. “It’s really a magical environment.”
The space is set up for a group of eight to 10 people and has a $200 spending limit. Dzenowagis also sets up igloos at the other three restaurants he owns in southeast Michigan, and is adding more for 2020.
Their ambiance was desirable pre-pandemic, he said. In the age where keeping space between groups is paramount, they’re even more attractive.
“Restaurants are designed to bring a lot of people together,” Dzenowagis said. “You bring a lot of people together, you put them in a nice environment, it can be crowded and loud and boisterous … Managing COVID is about the exact opposite of that.”
Dzenowagis expects the industry to struggle throughout the winter as long as seating capacity is limited. He encourages others to explore outdoor seating options – but to work with your city and building department to do it right, for safety and to avoid getting shut down.
Even during the warmth of the summer, 82% of restaurants were down in sales this August compared to last August, per the NRA survey. Sales were down 32% on average.
600-plus other ideas
Besides the igloos, some restaurants are building covered pavilions, heated tents, glass or steel structures, adding space heaters to patios and more.
Batch Brewing in Detroit built a large pavilion outside this summer to handle more spaced-out crowds and they plan to put three walls around it and keep it open in the winter.
While the opportunities may seem limited, the Northville Downtown Development Agency is consulting a stockpile of more than 600 winter outdoor dining ideas, said Executive Director Lori Ward. The ideas are coming from the Chicago Winter Dining Challenge – which allows people to submit drawings and concepts for outdoor dining this winter with $5,000 going to the winner.
All the ideas are free to view online.
“I’ve been (with the Northville DDA) for 21 years and I’ve never felt that the stakes were so high,” Ward said. “You just know the decisions we’re making and the opportunities we’re creating could make or break any of the businesses downtown.”
Ideas include: heated tables with connected fleece tablecloths/blankets; repurposing school buses for dining space, winter cabanas/tents/nests/pods/igloos/domes; “Container Alley” that repurposes shipping containers for dining space on the other side of sidewalks; heated outdoor glow stools; and a demand response pricing app that raises and lowers meal prices depending on how busy the restaurant is.
Cities like Northville, Birmingham and Ferndale are ahead of the curve in tweaking ordinances, streamlining processes and expediting permits to allow restaurants to have winterized temporary outdoor spaces, Winslow said.
“Every single day that someone’s waiting for an answer is lost revenue,” Ward said.
Northville shut down a pair of downtown roads and received state approval for a “social district,” where people can buy alcohol in special to-go cups and consume the drinks while walking around. The city plans to extend the street closures and social district through March.
So far, the changes have been a success, Ward said. Downtown has a block-party atmosphere with yard games, live music and distanced outdoor seating and retail galore. City leaders hope to find a way to keep it going in the cold.
The pandemic isn’t over. And for restaurants without a spark of ingenuity to keep the customers coming in this winter, the financial repercussions might just be beginning.
COVID-19 PREVENTION TIPS
In addition to washing hands regularly and not touching your face, officials recommend practicing social distancing, assuming anyone may be carrying the virus.
Health officials say you should be staying at least 6 feet away from others and working from home, if possible.
Use disinfecting wipes or disinfecting spray cleaners on frequently-touched surfaces in your home (door handles, faucets, countertops) and carry hand sanitizer with you when you go into places like stores.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has also issued executive orders requiring people to wear face coverings over their mouth and nose while in public indoor and crowded outdoor spaces. See an explanation of what that means here.
Additional information is available at Michigan.gov/Coronavirus and CDC.gov/Coronavirus.
For more data on COVID-19 in Michigan, visit https://www.mlive.com/coronavirus/data/.
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