Businesses inch closer to normalcy

Restaurants reopen to 50%, offices wait for their turn

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published March 9, 2021

 Jeny Abraham, of Troy, and David Bird, of Royal Oak, sit down for a few drinks on the patio at Dick O’Dow’s pub with dog Rocky March 7.

Jeny Abraham, of Troy, and David Bird, of Royal Oak, sit down for a few drinks on the patio at Dick O’Dow’s pub with dog Rocky March 7.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki


BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD — That feeling of hope in the air this year comes from more than just the first signs of spring.

As restaurants open their doors to more diners and people sign up for their dose of the vaccine, it’s clear that residents in the Eagle’s coverage area are ready to shake off both the snow and the confines of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Beginning last Friday, Michigan restaurants were able to boost their dine-in service to 50% capacity from the 25% they had been restricted to since the indoor dining ban was lifted Feb. 1.

Before that, restaurants had only been able to serve carryout and outdoor diners since mid-November.

And even those baby steps back to half capacity have been a tough go for many restaurateurs, particularly those who added equipment and shelters for outdoor dining, personal protective equipment or additional phone lines to keep up with carryout orders.

A little relief for big expenses
The county’s $3 million Oakland Together Restaurant Relief Grant Program is working on helping those venues chip away at the expenses they might have incurred to keep their business afloat.  Fifty-three municipalities have received thousands of dollars to divvy up among restaurants to recoup those costs.

“Right around 20 restaurants applied for the grants, and we were very pleased that we’re able to provide funds for everyone that applied,” said Jaimi Brook, the operations and events manager for the Birmingham Shopping District. “We didn’t have to turn anyone away.”

Each city, village or township was allocated funds based on how many full-service restaurants and bars were located within its borders, minus those with drive-thru availability, as they could still accommodate customers during no-contact restrictions.

Brook said Birmingham received more than $85,000 to distribute to restaurants, though she said the total value of relief is closer to more than $100,000. She added that as far as she knew, there were no restaurants in the city that had to permanently close strictly due to pandemic circumstances.

“We just had our Restaurant Week promotion, which went really well. Under the circumstances, we were very pleased. And the community has really supported restaurants with takeout,” she said.

Bloomfield Hills received around $11,500; Bingham Farms got close to $15,000; Beverly Hills received nearly $10,000; Franklin got nearly $7,000; and Bloomfield Township got around $61,000.

“Oakland County has done a great job over this COVID time to try and get resources whenever possible for first responders and essential workers, and right now they’ve been working on our restaurants relief program … to help those bars and restaurants that were truly affected negatively,” said Bloomfield Township Supervisor Dani Walsh. “It’s not everything they need, but at least it’s something in the meantime.”

A call to return to cubicles
With so much attention on eateries, other businesses have expressed concern over why there’s a lack of urgency to get their facilities back up and running.

Originally signed last October, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Administration’s emergency rules prohibit most in-person work. Several chambers of commerce across the state say that means businesses and employers are barred from finding ways to safely reopen offices in ways that will keep jobs and the economy alive.

The rules state that, “The employer shall create a policy prohibiting in-person work for employees to the extent that their work activities can feasibly be completed remotely.”

That October order is set to expire April 14, and many of those chambers are banding together as a group called the Reopen Michigan Safely Coalition, asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer not to extend it so businesses, specifically office workers, can safely resume in-person work.

They’re promoting their message with the hashtag #EndTheOfficeBan.

“Our restaurants and retail establishments have suffered greatly as a result of the current work from-home mandates, and further extending the order will lead directly to more local businesses failing,” Birmingham-Bloomfield Chamber President Joe Bauman said in a press release. “Many of our member businesses have greatly reduced staff and slashed their hours of operation as a result of losing all of the customers generated from a robust office sector and are literally hanging on by a thread. Our employers and employees should be given the right to create a safe work environment following federal guidelines and determine for themselves what is the best operating practice for their individual business.”

Whitmer weighs the options
Sean Egan, the director of Michigan COVID-19 workplace safety with the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, or LEO, said there’s actually no hard and fast rule prohibiting in-person work. It’s really up to each employer to determine whether the nature of their business requires face-to-face interaction.

“Remote work is a strategy to minimize in-person contacts and is included in guidance from (the) CDC and Federal OSHA to protect employees in the workplace,” Egan said in an email. “Employers must implement COVID-19 safety measures, which include social distancing, face coverings, health screenings and other measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

He added that LEO is in the process of establishing a group of public- and private-sector workers to advise the agency on a “phased return” to in-person office work.

Bobby Leddy, the press secretary for Whitmer’s office, emailed a prepared statement in response to the #EndTheOfficeBan campaign.

“The health and safety of Michigan residents continues to be Governor Whitmer’s top priority. While countless Michiganders are already safely going to their place of employment, some jobs do not require in-person work, which is why the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration asks employers in those sectors to allow their employees to work from home to maximize safety unless it is absolutely necessary for employees to be in the office,” the statement reads. “Earlier this week, Governor Whitmer created a work group of business and labor leaders to make recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep their employees safe while in the workplace. We are all anxious to return to life as normal, and that’s why our administration is laser-focused on ramping up vaccine distribution and supporting small businesses to help us get there.”