Businesses owners prepare to open dining, adapt to guidelines

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — Following months of shutdowns and carry-out service only, Michigan restaurants and bars are preparing to reopen their doors to the public.

Monday, Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-110, ending Michigan’s stay-at-home order. Among other sectors of the economy, the order allows bars and restaurants to reopen for limited capacity dine-in service beginning Monday, June 8. Now, restaurateurs across the state are working to adapt to the change and rushing to prepare their spaces for dine-in customers.

“I’m glad this happened,” said Jim Morris, of Jim’s Smokin Café in downtown Niles. “It is time for sure.”

Tuesday, Morris was busy measuring space to determine the proper distancing between tables and finding ways he could safely bring back diners to his shop.

“We are looking at getting more outdoor seating because we can only open at 50 percent, and that doesn’t leave a whole lot inside,” said Morris, whose restaurant can hold 24 occupants at 50 percent capacity. “With a limited number of seats, it makes things tough. We are going to focus on more outdoor seating because people want it anyways.”

Morris said he is ready to welcome dine-in customers as his business has taken a significant financial hit since the original “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order closed his shop for dine-in and canceled many events he would have catered. He said he had lost additional revenue in recent weeks as many diners are now traveling to Indiana, which reopened restaurants at 50 percent capacity last month, rather than ordering carry out.

“With South Bend open, business died off,” Morris said. “I’m ready to reopen. … I hope everyone gets some sense of normalcy back.”

However, not all businesses are ready yet to bring back dine-in services.

Down M-51, Dowagiac bakery and coffee shop the Baker’s Rhapsody has no current plans to reopen its dining room. Instead, it will continue to offer curbside service and carry-out through a newly-installed walk-up window.

“Immediately, we are going to stick with what we have been doing just to feel things out and ensure everything is A-OK,” said owner Jordan Anderson. “Our dining room may look big, but if we are trying to maintain proper social distancing, by the time you count in the line and the waiting area for drinks, there just isn’t a lot of room for tables as well. Our space is just a little small to open right away.”

Though he does not plan to reopen his dining room yet, Anderson said he is happy that other businesses now have the opportunity to so long as they can maintain proper safety precautions.

“I’m glad we are moving in the right direction,” Anderson said. “It’s still a little scary to get a lot of people grouped together, but as long as people can do it in a really safe way, I think it is great.”

Laura Hollister, owner of Apothica Teas in Niles, has created a reopening plan somewhere between Jim’s Smokin Café’s and the Baker’s Rhapsody’s. Like Morris, Hollister and her husband, Shane, have purchased outdoor seating for diners. However, like Anderson, she will not be allowing dine-in service inside her storefront as a safety precaution.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hollister has been taking extra precautions to protect her immunocompromised son. She said allowing outdoor dining will be a way to welcome back customers while remaining cautious for the sake of her family.

“We are just going to go slow,” she said. “The support we have had for curbside and from our customers has been wonderful, so we are going to see how outside service works for a few weeks before deciding what to do next.”

While Hollister is not sure when she will reopen her dining room, she is happy that dine-in services will be allowed to resume, as it will help many in the Niles business community.

“I’m thrilled for my neighbors,” she said. “For most, I think this will help them immensely.”