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click to enlarge Heirloom Hospitality Group, which owns the Townhouse restaurants in Detroit and Birmingham, signed onto a lawsuit against MDHHS over its new COVID-19 orders. - EVAN GONZALEZ, DETROIT STOCK CITY

  • Evan Gonzalez, Detroit Stock City
  • Heirloom Hospitality Group, which owns the Townhouse restaurants in Detroit and Birmingham, signed onto a lawsuit against MDHHS over its new COVID-19 orders.

The Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association (MRLA) is suing the state’s health department after it issued new epidemic orders aimed at restricting bars and restaurants as coronavirus cases surge in Michigan.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Director Robert Gordon announced new restrictions during a Sunday evening press conference, including a three-week prohibition on indoor dining at bars and restaurants. Whitmer and other officials warned that without drastic action, COVID-19 deaths could top more than 1,000 per week in Michigan as the cold weather forces people indoors, where the virus can easily spread.

The MRLA represents more than 5,000 hospitality businesses. Heirloom Hospitality Group LLC, which owns the Townhouse restaurants in downtown Detroit and Birmingham as well as upscale Prime + Proper in Detroit, joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff, as did hotelier group Suburban Inns.

The lawsuit is seeking an emergency preliminary injunction to resume on-premise indoor food and beverage consumption, arguing that the restaurant industry can safely stay open. It also says that the MDHHS’s own data, only about 4% of COVID-19 outbreaks are attributed to restaurants.

“We have taken this action only after careful deliberation and as the last available option to prevent the outright devastation of restaurant operators and their hundreds of thousands of employees across the state,” MRLA President & CEO Justin Winslow said in a statement.

The lawsuit contends that the epidemic orders will force 40% of restaurants to close, at least temporarily, and could result in around 250,000 employees being laid off over the holiday season. The lawsuit also says the economic impact of the pandemic could see at least 6,000 Michigan restaurants permanently close by the spring.

According to the lawsuit, about 2,000 restaurants have already closed their doors permanently this year due to the pandemic.

Winslow said the lawsuit came after the MRLA made “several good faith efforts … to reach a compromise with the MDHHS that would have supported the goal of minimizing risk while still allowing for the continued operation of dining rooms.” That included a proposal to reduce capacity in restaurants to 25% and implementing a 10 p.m. curfew.

“While our proposal would undeniably challenge an already beleaguered industry, it was presented to Director Gordon and the Executive Office of the Governor in earnest to stave off the far worse impact of outright closure,” Winslow said.

A study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in September found that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant within two weeks of reporting symptoms. The epidemic orders allow restaurants to remain open for delivery, carryout, and outdoor dining only.

A number of local restaurants have turned to heated patios, tents, and igloos to extend the patio season, and Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and the Small Business Association of Michigan announced $3 million in grant money to help businesses winterize their outdoor spaces.

While the Michigan Supreme Court struck down Whitmer’s emergency powers as unconstitutional, the new orders are epidemic orders that are enabled by a different law. They are unlikely to be successfully challenged in the courts, according to legal experts.

Whitmer acknowledged the financial strain of the shutdowns, and urged President Donald Trump to work with Congress to pass new federal aid legislation.

MDHHS director Gordon shared the following statement with Metro Times:

“Restaurants are at the heart of our communities, and it is deeply unfortunate that the federal government has not stepped up to extend financial relief for them. Unfortunately, COVID-19 spreads in indoor settings where individuals socialize without masks. There are currently 54 outbreaks associated with bars and restaurants in Michigan. Because about 50 to 60 percent of all COVID-19 cases cannot be tied to a known source of infection, and because tying cases to places where individuals may spend only an hour is difficult, there is an unknown number of further outbreaks not counted above. Targeted and temporary closures that include restaurants have been part of successful strategies for containing COVID surges in Western Europe. Other states are now following this approach, and it is supported by leading public health experts nationwide. The order rests firmly on epidemic powers given to the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services after the Spanish Flu a century ago, and it is lawful. The sooner Michiganders put a pause on indoor social gatherings, the more lives we will save, and the sooner we will be able to resume our normal social lives, including eating out, without fear. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to support their favorite restaurants by ordering take-out or delivery.”

This story was updated with a statement from MDHHS.

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