Bay County Eateries Adapting to Dining in the COVID Age

The Latest Installment of 'Buzz by the Bay'

Posted In: Culture, Restaurants, Community Profiles,   From Issue 904   By: Jason Dean

29th October, 2020     0

Great Lakes Bay Area restaurant owners have had to navigate some choppy and unpredictable waters to stay afloat in 2020. In mid-March, the statewide shutdown forced many establishments to choose between staying open as a take-out-only entity, or battening down the hatches and reopening after the storm has passed (whenever that might be).

For an entire season, ravenous grub hunters were limited to home cooking or take out until restaurants reopened, albeit at limited capacity, in early June. For the eateries gamely making a go of it, the summer and fall of 2020 has been an exercise in maximizing available outdoor space, rethinking kitchen logistics and educating staff, and dutifully enforcing a mask mandate while weathering occasional insults or snide comments from frustrated patrons.

As temperatures begin to drop faster than a governor’s emergency declaration powers, one wonders what the winter of 2020/21 portends. In October, the Michigan State Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Whitmer did not have the authority to extend her emergency powers (enacted in March) beyond the end of April 2020. In other words, lockdown, schmockdown. 

So here we are. Residents of Michigan find themselves spectators at a perverse cage match, with babyface Public Safety being pummeled with random chair shots from their punch-drunk nemeses, Reeling Economy and Liberty Militia. At any moment, an unsuspecting attendee could be pulled through the ropes and drafted into the front lines of the melee. Texas Death Match? Loser Leaves Town Match? Heel turn? Depends on your constitution, I guess (no pun intended).

One oasis of nourishment spawned during the Season of Shutdown was the Bay County Take-Out and Delivery Options Facebook Group. Created by Earl Bovia, who owns Bay City Bills Bar & Grill (formerly Hulda’s), the group quickly became a bastion of information guiding members amidst the barren bistro battlefield, providing a reliable, crowd-sourced path for trudging through the taco trenches and burger bunkers in the search for viable take-out options in the area. Attracting nearly 9,000 members within weeks of its formation, the group became a lifeline for diners hungry to support local businesses.

Bovia recalls talking with his food rep in the late winter, when the pandemic had just started affecting Michigan. “He told me about a few other areas on his route that were doing something similar,” says Bovia, referring to the Facebook group. 

The Group has a Google spreadsheet that can be accessed, with details on 85 restaurants currently operating in Bay County. Visitors both request and offer recommendations, and the page stays away from biting critiques: only positive contributions are sought. 

During the early days of the lockdown, Coonan’s Irish Hub tried to shift gears and transition to a full take-out operation, as much as logistics would allow. That came to a halt after a couple weeks when owner Kim Coonan tested positive for COVID-19. The restaurant shut down while Coonan recovered. “I was sick, in bed 20 hours a day, he says. “I had all the symptoms.” As Coonan and his girlfriend quarantined, he eventually began testing positive for coronavirus antibodies. The restaurant finally re-opened almost 2 months later, on Memorial Day Weekend. 

Since then, Coonan has been hyper-diligent about sanitizing the restaurant and ensuring that all safety protocols are being followed.”The governor’s doing her best to try and keep people healthy, and I support her 100 percent,” he says. There is a segment of the dining population, Coonan points out, that has yet to return to his booths. These are people who remain at an elevated risk of contracting the virus because of age, health, or pre-existing conditions. 

Maybe there’s a voice in your head that pops up to remind you that the world is tough and requires a hale-and-hearty nature; the frail should just stay put rather than venture out and impinge upon the rights of the majority of strong, healthy Americans. 

Coonan’s response? “There are people who don’t want to wear the mask because they’re macho, or they’re trying to make a political statement, or they don’t care about their health or your health,” he says, listing off the reasons for non-compliance. “I tell ‘em, ‘Wear it for the economy.’” 

As of this writing, America is in the throes of choosing the climate under which the country will run for the next 4 years, and no one is really sure when or where the election will be officially decided: In November? In 2020? In The Supreme Court?

Currently, restaurants are limited to 50% capacity, with state guidelines recommending the closure of self-serve areas such as salad bars and drink stations and offering curbside delivery in place of waiting areas. But there is nothing to say that a week from now, another wave will inundate the state.

Michigan guidelines mandate that a restaurant must close immediately if an employee “shows symptoms of COVID-19, defined as either the new onset of cough or new onset of chest tightness or two of the following: fever, chills, rigors, myalgia, headache, sore throat, or disorders of taste or smell.” The establishment must also perform a deep clean, consistent with guidance from the FDA and the CDC, which can be done overnight. The Bay County Health Department requires a 2-week closure. 

Brooklyn Boyz Pizza was blindsided in late October when an employee tested positive for the virus. The restaurant, which pursued all the appropriate contact tracing and put out a press release, is scheduled to reopen in early November. 

One restaurateur, who preferred to remain anonymous, does not like the direction he sees the state heading in the coming months when it comes to controlling the spread of the virus.

“Experts are saying that the alarming numbers we’ve been seeing in Michigan could compromise dine-in service again,” he says. “A lot of what you have is people moving their interior to the exterior, and that’s not exactly safer,” the unnamed restaurateur points out. 

Overall, the atmosphere -- in all public places -- feels heavy with irony: Levels of enforcement are arbitrarily rigid or lax, depending on where you happen to be. If you breathe in deeply enough, it’s easy to become cynical-ly impaired.

Over the past few months, I’ve had conversations with a few rugged individuals who shared with me that they had “beat[en] the Covid.” A bit of mano-a-mano Michigan machismo? Or a stoic exterior putting a tight lid on the headrush of a brush with mortality? 

Perhaps the coming months will allow us to turn the page, find a new menu, or at least achieve the necessary distance to put this social-experiment-gone-awry, and its exhaustive implications, into proper perspective.

 

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