Rick Haglund: Business owners, groups take different approaches on COVID-19 closures, reopenings

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Normally, the Bluebird Restaurant & Tavern in Leland would be serving hundreds of tourists and summer residents returning to this lovely lakefront town northwest of Traverse City on Memorial Day weekend, as it has since 1927.

But the COVID-19 pandemic is keeping the popular restaurant closed this weekend, except for takeout whitefish dinners, pizza and a few other dishes.

Owners Skip and Lynn Telgard decided to delay reopening, even though it could restart business under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order this week allowing bars and restaurants in 32 northern Michigan counties to resume limited service.

“We miss your business, your laughter, and mostly your friendship,” the restaurant posted on its Facebook page. “But we also care about the health and well-being of our community, and believe that so much has been done to mitigate this virus that we choose to hold on for a time yet, and maybe come a little closer to finishing the job.”

Across the street in Fishtown, though, the Wanroy family decided to open its eatery, The Cove, for outdoor dining after quickly implementing new operating procedures and lining up staff.

“I keep thinking in my head that we’re going to crawl, then walk and then run and really get moving again,” Chris Wanroy told MLive

To our friends, customers, and staff: We have supported our Governor in her decisions on Covid-19 and how our state…

Posted by The Bluebird Restaurant & Tavern on Monday, May 18, 2020

The differing approaches of the Bluebird and The Cove in reopening their businesses reflect a larger split in the business community and uncertainties over how to restart the economy, which has been mostly shut down for the past two months during the worst pandemic in more than a century.

Rich Studley, president of the 6,000-member Michigan Chamber of Commerce, has been firing off hysteric tweets, claiming that Whitmer has turned Michigan into “a police state” and squarely blaming her for Michigan’s historic 22.7% jobless rate in April.

Michigan Chamber CEO Rich Studley at a press conference on hiking road funding, Aug. 20, 2019 | Nick Manes

“This is what happens when a Governor unilaterally decides to impose the most onerous lockdown order in the country and keep it in place indefinitely,” Studley huffed.

He has also praised local law enforcement officials who have said they won’t enforce Whitmer’s business closing orders, retweeted a story alleging federal and state officials may be inflating COVID-19 deaths and claimed other states, especially Ohio, are doing a better job of reopening their economies.

Other businesses groups, while pushing for a faster reopening of businesses than Whitmer has allowed, have at least put on a responsible public face.

Reopening the state’s economy won’t be “like flipping on a light switch,” said former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who is now president of the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM).

“Public health and the economy must be considered together for us to truly recover from this crisis,” he said in an April statement. “Doing so will help restart our economy and protect the health of Michiganders, which will benefit us all.”

Former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley | NIck Manes

Like every other political leader in the country, Whitmer hasn’t made perfect decisions in dealing with a highly contagious virus that even medical and public health experts still don’t completely understand.

Almost 54,000 Michigan residents have contracted COVID-19 since March 1 and 5,158 people have died from the virus as of Friday. The state’s 9.6% fatality rate is the highest in the country, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

By allowing businesses in more rural parts of the state that have had relatively few COVID-19 cases to reopen, Whitmer has responded to data trends and to Republican lawmakers’ calls for a regional approach to restarting the economy.

The problem is that many of those places are prime tourist destinations that are likely to attract thousands of people from more populated parts of the state where the virus has yet to be contained. That’s given pause to many northern Michigan businesses and residents.

“We faced getting through a large weekend with only a small portion of the state open,” Lynn Telgard told me. “We would have been flooded with people.”

U.P., parts of northern Mich. will be back in business before Memorial Day

She said she also felt “blindsided” by Whitmer’s decision this week to allow northern Michigan bars and restaurants to reopen, giving her just a few days to prepare to reopen. 

“We had no idea this was going to happen,” Telgard said. “We were not prepared mentally.”

But recent anti-Whitmer demonstrations at the state Capitol, in which protesters wandered the grounds carrying high-powered rifles and toting signs comparing her to Adolf Hitler, were deeply troubling, said the head of one major business group.

Doug Rothwell, president of Business Leaders for Michigan, also said it’s wrong for local sheriffs and prosecutors to refuse to enforce Whitmer’s coronavirus-related executive orders.

“That’s not what we get to do. That’s not what our country is built on,” said Rothwell, whose organization represents CEOs of the state’s largest businesses and university presidents.

Watchdog group: Anti-Whitmer protests tied to out-of-state conservative outfits

He made the remarks in a recent Detroit Regional Chamber online town hall.

Rothwell, who formerly headed the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), said the state faces an enormous task in cautiously rebuilding its economy and finding new positions for hundreds of thousands of workers whose jobs have disappeared.

“I don’t hear anybody saying it’s going to be a V-shaped recovery. At best it’s going to be a U-shaped or even a W-shaped economy,” he said. “We may have to pull back” if there’s a reoccurrence of the virus.

Doug Rothwell

Michigan can learn best practices from other states and countries on how to safely restart its economy, he said. But just because something works elsewhere doesn’t mean it will be effective in Michigan, which has been harder hit than most states by the virus.

“To think, for example, we can point to Ohio and say, ‘Ohio is doing this; maybe we can just do that here in Michigan,’” Rothwell said. “Well, maybe not. It may not work exactly right.”

And who wants to be Ohio, anyway?