In the absence of restrictions, students crowd Ann Arbor restaurants and bars

Tuesday, June 30, 2020 - 4:53pm

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Kristina Zheng

Over the past several weekends, students have taken to social media to express concern about a significant increase in the number of people in Ann Arbor as students start to move back and go out to restaurants and bars. 

Under the new guidelines from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Ann Arbor has transitioned into phase four of the state’s reopening as of June 1. Phase 4 guidelines state that restaurants should limit capacity to 50 percent, require six feet of separation between parties, close waiting areas, and close self service parts of restaurants. 

An employee who works at a restaurant on South University Avenue spoke to The Daily about the challenges facing many restaurants. The employee requested to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation from their employer. To protect the identity of the employee, The Daily has decided not to publish the name of the restaurant. 

“The protections are pretty minimal,” the employee said. “We have had an onslaught of people everyday who are looking to party a little bit, and we haven’t had enough staff to keep up with the social distancing and being able to follow through with keeping everything as clean as it should be. We’re seeing the kind of volume we see during football season.”

The employee also said COVID-19 is a big concern for those working at bars and restaurants.

“If you are concerned about getting COVID-19, I would be very concerned about going to (a bar),” the employee said. “The biggest issue is the (lack of) staff. I’ve been to other bars in Ann Arbor and they all have way more people working than (this bar) and they seem to be taking it much more seriously.” 

The employee further emphasized the public’s disinterest in taking precautions against the virus to go out to bars. 

“They act like the virus does not exist after 9 o’clock,” the employee said. “From 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., people do not think COVID-19 exists.”

Although the dangers of COVID-19 are still present in public spaces, some people are willing to take that risk in order to eat at restaurants and bars. Alum Chase Austin told the Daily while he acknowledges the risks of going out, he has still been going.

“I honestly don’t think there should be indoor restaurants right now, Austin said. “It just seems a little unsafe. I still think it’s a little too soon, but I’ve still been going to the bars.”

Ann Arbor Resident Felecia Right also went out to a bar, but said COVID-19 was inevitable and using face masks is not a sustainable solution. 

“I feel like eventually you’re probably going to get it,” Right said. “It’s going to happen, it’s just the way your body is going to be able to handle it or not. But we can’t keep hiding behind these masks.”

However, this situation is not unique to Ann Arbor. As of Thursday, over 51 cases of COVID-19 have been traced to Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub in East Lansing near the campus of Michigan State University. 

Despite Harper’s alleged commitment to following proper health precautions, COVID-19 cases still spread through Harper’s customers, according to MLive.

John Fournier, Ann Arbor assistant city administrator, told The Daily in an email the city is working to reopen while keeping residents and guests safe. 

“What we know about this virus is that social distancing is very important, facemasks are key and being outside significantly lowers the rate of transmission,” Fournier said. “Bars and restaurants are able to extend their business areas into the street so they can safely socially distance and seat enough people to keep their businesses afloat.” 

Fournier also noted the city’s efforts to open up streets to allow restaurants to safely serve the community.

“Primarily we are concerned about making sure people have as low of a risk experience as they can now that we are beginning to leave our homes again,” Fournier said. “When the governor lifted her Stay Home, Stay Safe order we had a choice. We could either do nothing and let bars and restaurants manage with limited space on their own or we could open our streets up and lower our risk as much as possible by letting people spread out and be outdoors.” 

LSA Senior Gillian Graham was walking to The Brown Jug with her friend, but they were turned away for not wearing masks. While they were on their way to buy masks, Graham told The Daily that bars and restaurants have been strict on health and safety protocols since they reopened. 

“The bars, at least, have been a lot quieter,” Graham said. “They’re requiring masks and social distancing. A lot of students are kind of upset about the long lines and the waits at the bars (but) we’re just doing our best to have a great summer despite the present circumstances.”

University alum John Bartman posted a meme on Facebook in response to multiple posts of students partying at Ann Arbor bars. Bartman expressed his thoughts on students going to bars and restaurants to The Daily. He said he believes students can do better. 

“I was very disappointed,” Bartman said. “We’re all smart young people (and) we know what’s going on. I don’t think there’s anyone that is oblivious to the fact that this is a major problem in the country with infections rates going up in so many places. Although I understand, it’s like really tempting to go to bars and see your friends, obviously a lot of us would do anything in the world to make the situation be done and over with and go back to normal and party and do all those things. But in order to do that, we have to still do our part in the things that we can control.”

Bartman said he does not believe bars will be incentivized to follow protocols because their business model is the opposite of what the health and safety rules are trying to do. 

“Yes, (bars will) say they want to do the right thing, but their whole business model is to get people inside in an inclosed space and do dumb decisions,” Bartman said. “I don’t think they would ever be incentivized to do the right thing in terms of social distancing because we can see it now.”

Gabrielle Bussell, employee at the Arbor Brewing company, is part of a group that started a petition to close dine-in services at restaurants. The petition states concerns from service workers at restaurants and bars such as customers not social distancing, not wearing masks and the spread of germs through air conditioning. Many employees are not able to express these worries to management due to fear of retaliation, according to Bussell. 

“The majority of people have been given ultimatums by their employers regardless of their feelings and essentially being told that ‘You need to come back to work or you’re going to lose your position or your unemployment benefits,’” Bussell said.

Bussel also mentioned that people who go out to bars and restaurants are more likely to drink alcohol, and Bussell said she is concerned about those who do drink being able to follow health and safety protocols.

“People under the influence of alcohol are going to be unlikely to follow the proper guidelines,” Bussell said. “I keep hearing horror stories from people who’ve gone back and say whether it’s drunk customers or difficult customers who don’t view the virus as a threat, basically going out of their way to mock servers and employees and going out of their way to expose themselves to people, just because they don’t believe this is something that’s worth taking safety precautions for.”

Though the state recommends businesses to allow more sick days and time off for employees, Bussell emphasizes that many employers will not follow those rules. She said it is typical for employees to work even while they are sick, and an increase in needed workers does not help businesses give their employees an incentive for allowed time off. 

“This isn’t just a concern for workers. Our community is going to be affected (too),” Bussell said. “If someone who works at a bar or a restaurant has COVID-19, they have a strong possibility of passing that on to other people and they may very well be asymptomatic (and) even if they’re not, we know in the service industry that workers are expected to come to work whether they are sick or not. We can not really expect employers to take the necessary steps to ensure that people’s health and safety are first because all of these guidelines that have been put forward aren’t exactly profit-driven when it comes to a business owner’s motives.”

Pancheros on South University Avenue is also a popular place for students to go on the weekends given its proximity to the bars. Shift team leader Carmen Hernandez told The Daily in an interview that Pancheros is taking precautions to help mitigate the spread of the virus. 

“It’s a requirement for all staff to wear a face mask,” Hernandez said. “There’s yellow tape marking where (six) feet is relative to the person in front of you.”

Hernendez also mentioned that she often finds herself reminding patrons not to touch the glass and to keep six feet away from each other and the employees, as many guests have been defiant to the rules. 

“It's a little bit overwhelming to make everybody understand that it really isn’t to bother them, it’s to keep everybody safe and healthy,” Hernendez said. “Unfortunately right now, it’s out of my hands, but we don’t require (customers) to wear a mask. We have a lot more customers than we did at the beginning of quarantine. It’s not us against them, it’s us trying to work together to keep everyone safe.” 

Powel Kazanjian, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Michigan Medicine and professor of internal medicine, spoke to The Daily about the health risks associated with the reopening. 

“I think it’s a risk,” Kazanjian said. “The ability to keep the infection (contained) and the ability to prevent it from coming back is dependent on people adhering to strict guidelines and rules.”

Kazanjian explained that while lifting the stay-at-home order in Michigan is a positive step in the pandemic, it is now time for individuals to take responsibility for keeping themselves and their communities safe. 

“The lockdowns have ended and that's good news, but now it’s time for people to take individual responsibility to restrict their freedom to some degree by wearing masks and remaining socially distant,” Kazanjian said. “Once people have breached these rules, then I think it’s extremely worrisome for recurrence of the pandemic.”

Kazanjian also spoke about his experiences treating patients at the University Hospital and issued a warning to young people saying while symptoms may be less severe, young folks can still become severely ill from the COVID-19 virus. 

“It was difficult seeing that some people were placed on ventilators and unable to get off of them,” Kaznajian said. “Their family members couldn't come to visit them except by remote means. Young people who are well can get severe illness … (and they) can risk spreading the disease to older people as well.”

Many seniors had their graduation ceremonies canceled due to COVID-19, which was disappointing to many recent alums like Bartman. However, Bartman said he sleeps better at night knowing he chooses to stay home and avoid the virus rather than risking his life and those around him to go partying. 

“I get that people want to party, it’s hard,” Bartman said. “As someone who had the second half of their senior year essentially canceled, it’s definitely hard and it gets sad (to think) about it. You think about all the what-ifs or what could have happened like at the end of the day, I’d rather say ‘It would’ve been cool to go to bars if this stuff hadn’t happened.’ Then do something stupid, go to a bar and carry the virus back home to my family and put my family at risk. I think in the long run, can you sleep at night when you infected your family knowing that you made a dumb decision, or you can sleep better knowing ‘Yeah it sucks, but I did the right thing’ and that’s what matters in the long run.”

Summer News Editors Calder Lewis and Kristina Zheng contributed to the reporting of this story.

Summer Managing News Editor Jasmin Lee can be reached at itsshlee@umich.edu and Summer News Editor Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu

 

This article has been edited to remove a source since its original publication.