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Owosso Republican implores state health officials to reopen restaurants

State Rep. Ben Frederick says studies are inconclusive while suffering is immense among restaurants
Republican State Rep. Ben Frederick was an architect of the party's new plan to manage COVID-19...
Republican State Rep. Ben Frederick was an architect of the party's new plan to manage COVID-19 restrictions in Michigan.(source: Michigan House Republicans)
Published: Jan. 11, 2021 at 1:25 PM EST
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LANSING, Mich. (WJRT) - A state representative from Owosso is calling for the immediate end of Michigan COVID-19 orders requiring restaurants to close indoor dining.

Republican State Rep. Ben Frederick sent a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday imploring her to end the restrictions, which the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services enacted on Nov. 18. The epidemic order was extended twice and is scheduled to end Friday.

Frederick’s letter says the explanation and studies that state health officials use to support the indoor dining ban are insufficient. He said the studies are based on speculation and assumptions, which don’t definitively link confirmed COVID-19 illness to restaurants.

Meanwhile, the suffering within the restaurant industry around Michigan has been immense, Frederick says. He pointed to statistics from the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association showing that 2,000 restaurants have closed permanently due to coronavirus restrictions and thousands more “are hanging on by a thread.”

“The stories of hardship are everywhere,” Frederick said in the letter. “Restaurant employees trying to provide for themselves and their children are at a financial breaking point. Families whose livelihoods revolve around operating a small restaurant are draining life savings, struggling to make ends meet, and getting in deeper financial trouble every single day that statewide restrictions continue.”

He believes Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services ignored efforts among restaurateurs to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in their dining rooms, such as reduced seating capacity and physical barriers between tables.

Whitmer defended the epidemic order from state health officials last week, saying that studies showing a small percentage of COVID-19 outbreaks linked to Michigan restaurants likely is due mostly to an overwhelmed contact tracing system. She said outbreaks at restaurants may go unnoticed without enough workers to track where positive cases of the illness originate.

“Our tracing abilities are underwhelming on that front, and so I think that’s part of the data issue that we haven’t seen translate,” Whitmer said during a press conference on Friday.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has until Friday to decide whether the ban on indoor dining at restaurants will continue beyond its scheduled end. Whitmer has said state health officials want to review as much data after the holiday season as possible before deciding.

Here is the full text of Frederick’s letter to Whitmer dated Monday:

Governor Whitmer,

The three-week “pause” on indoor dining at restaurants your administration called for on November 18, 2020 has now lasted nearly two months. An estimated 2,000 Michigan restaurants have already permanently closed during this pandemic and the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association reports thousands more are hanging on by a thread – at risk of going out of business within the next few months. Tens of thousands of employees and their families have been left to navigate a fraud-riddled and dysfunctional unemployment insurance system. Closing the restaurant industry has also again wreaked havoc on the supply chain, which has an outsized impact on Michigan’s broader economy and continues to pose challenges to procuring other supplies for Michiganders.

Prior to the “pause” announcement, restaurateurs were engaging in good faith with further solutions related to occupancy, contact tracing, partitions, and other changes to accommodate safety concerns. Many have already spent thousands of dollars making changes to meet previous guidance from the state. If a statewide indoor dining ban with no path to reopening is truly the only option available in addressing COVID-19, there is a responsibility to be transparent regarding any strong evidence supporting such actions specific to a single economic sector. Such evidence has not been adequately presented by your administration to the people of Michigan, and it is therefore imperative the ban on in-person dining at bars and restaurants be ended immediately.

The following points demonstrate the arbitrary nature of the present ban:

  • Even at its peak, Michigan’s COVID-19 cases linked to restaurants were at 5.5% – and that link was tenuous at best. This statistic simply stated the number of cases where the person who tested positive had dined at a restaurant; it did not confirm that is where COVID was contracted. The studies your administration has pointed to supporting the ban are woefully insufficient. One relies heavily on reported transmission from a single person at a South Korean restaurant, without clear evidence on where the virus was actually contracted and whether the assumption of air patterns within that restaurant are likely to be duplicated.
  • Another study concludes individuals who tested positive were more likely to have reported dining in a restaurant, but is limited to telephone interviews of 154 people who tested positive and 160 who tested negative. It’s not clear if this limited survey based on results from 11 health care facilities across the U.S. has relevance to Michigan and factors such as methodology and its small sample size fails to show causation to such a degree justifying a statewide ban.
  • A third study relies heavily on mobile phone data from 10 of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation, tracking movements in what are described as “points of interest” – a speculative analysis. It should be noted that flaws in assumptions based on cell phone tracking were clearly demonstrated by your administration on the expectation that people had engaged in risky gathering behavior over the Thanksgiving holiday, which ended up not resulting in any significant surge in new coronavirus cases.
  • A fourth item cited is even more speculative and is in fact not even a study but a chart correlating credit card sales at restaurants as a predicator of COVID infection rates.
  • Suggested benefits of the dine-in ban are undercut further by the growing use of small, closed-in eating receptacles dotting sidewalks and parkways within yards of empty buildings, many of which have recently undergone expensive upgrades to meet earlier safety requirements.

There is no doubt that dining with others is a treasured social activity across our state. What is not seemingly considered within your administration’s response is the capacity for restaurateurs to create a safe dining experience, and the ability for competent and sound decision-making on the part of patrons.

The stories of hardship are everywhere. Restaurant employees trying to provide for themselves and their children are at a financial breaking point. Families whose livelihoods revolve around operating a small restaurant are draining life savings, struggling to make ends meet, and getting in deeper financial trouble every single day that statewide restrictions continue.

It is past time to restore both certainty and hope to our citizenry who own, work for, and frequent our state’s treasured restaurants. I therefore implore you and your administration to end the statewide ban on dine-in options for Michiganders immediately.

Sincerely,

Ben Frederick

Majority Floor Leader

85th District

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