Michigan restaurants begin the slow process of reopening

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Dining rooms statewide have finally reopened, albeit with several coronavirus-specific precautions in place. Restaurants are limited to 50 percent of their normal capacity, customers must be six feet apart, workers must wear face masks and there are several new guidelines regarding sanitation.

The scene in Lansing saw customers joyously return to their favorite eateries, whether by themselves, as a couple, or in small groups. At Soup Spoon Café on Michigan Avenue, both diners and staff were elated to enjoy a delicious restaurant-cooked meal, while following the proper precautions, of course. They ate sandwiches and conversed about their favorite albums. Projects of alternative metal icon Mike Patton were a particular focus of the conversation. I ordered a cajun chicken sandwich and ate my first meal inside of a restaurant in several months. It felt kind of surreal.

Soup Spoon general manager Keith Buchele has worked in the service industry for 27 years and at Soup Spoon for eight, and he’s been eagerly awaiting the day he could finally return to his passion.

“We’ve been waiting for this day for the last couple of months; we’ve been working toward this the entire time. Today was the endgame for everything that was going on before,” Buchele said Monday. “For us, luckily, it wasn’t a huge change, because we’ve already put a lot of plans in place.”

Buchele said Soup Spoon’s constant communication with its staff helped reopening become a more seamless process. His staff went through the coronavirus procedural training offered online by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In the restaurant industry, a lot of this stuff is second nature to all of us,” Buchele said. “We’ve already been doing so many of these procedures that, for now, it wasn’t a huge change.” The only big change, he said, is the requirement to wear masks.

Though restaurants have permission from the state to reopen, some are opting to stay closed until the 50 percent restriction is lifted. Justin King, owner of Bridge Street Social in DeWitt, said it’s simply not practical to reopen while only permitting 50 percent capacity and that he will wait until Bridge Street Social can fire on all cylinders before making a comeback.

“We will open when it feels right. It doesn’t feel right yet. Opening at 50 percent capacity is not profitable. It’s not really sustainable,” King said. “When we are all comfortable with it, that’s when we open. No sooner.”

King mentioned his disappointment that, for many, the choice of whether to reopen has gotten sucked into partisan politics.

“We have no interest in bringing harm via a novel virus to our crew, our customers, or their family. Masks matter. Hand washing matters,” King said. “It’s insane to me that this is remotely political. I know we are in dynamic times, but safety is non-negotiable, no matter what YouTube video somebody’s watching.”

Meanwhile, in downtown East Lansing, large crowds were spotted at popular student bars such as Harper’s Restaurant & Brewpub. Judging by the lines of students waiting to enter, many were not taking social distancing seriously. Footage that later surfaced on Twitter showed the scene was not much different inside the actual club either. But next door, things were quiet at the Black Cat Bistro, which had its outdoor and indoor seating amply spaced apart.

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