Business owners express concerns about COVID-19 mandates at community assembly

NILES — Frustrated business owners and residents gathered at The Grand LV in Niles at 4 p.m. Monday for what organizers, Melanie and Don Kennedy, titled a “peaceable assembly.”

Around 20 people assembled in The Grand LV’s main event room to speak with one another and with Michigan State Representative of the 78th District Brad Paquette.

The seats in the great room were spread out and offered in pairs for people to sit together if they chose.

The owners of the Grand LV, Melanie and Don Kennedy, sat toward the front. Business owners in the crowd included the owners of Rise n’ Shine Café and Jay’s Lounge.

The Kennedys opened the renovated Elks Temple building in downtown Niles in 2019. Through 2020, the venue has been shut down and unable to operate as they had planned through the year due to continued COVID-19 shutdowns and mandates

Don opened the event, addressing those gathered, and thanked them for attending the assembly.

“We should exercise our right to fight for constitutional laws and orders, because if we don’t, our rights disappear,” Don said. “But more than that, at a time like this when so many people are hurting, frustrated, confused and afraid, it’s extremely important for us to gather together and seek one another’s counsel.”

Don said he believed that COVID-19 was something that needed to be taken very seriously, but wanted a different way of handling precautions than how the state’s government had done so.

Paquette took the microphone next and interacted with the attendees, hearing their concerns. He spoke to the challenges of the 78th district being on the border with Indiana, which has handled COVID-19 mandates differently than the state of Michigan.

“In this time, I think it’s getting to the point where enough people are figuring out the coronavirus is with us,” Paquette said. “How can we find better ways to go about this? I have friends on the left and the far left who can have a discussion and public discourse. It brings about more understanding.”

Silvio Martino, the owner of Jay’s Lounge, expressed his frustrations with the COVID-19 mandates and the impacts on his business. He described how at the beginning of the mandates, he had attempted to be proactive with his business and practices.

“When all this started happening, I went out and winterized the patio,” Martino said of the patio attached to Jay’s Lounge. “I have a covered patio that is listed as an outdoor patio. So, when this outdoor dining [was mandated], it was like ‘fine.’ I took the windows out, turned the heat on, only to be told after two weeks that that’s not enough. ‘It’s partially open, not fully open.’ It just shows me that this is smoke and mirrors.’
Martino spoke about his continued attempts to stay open within the guidelines to take care of his business and his employees. He also stated that he helps take care of his mother. He said his mother has survived a liver transplant and cancer, and requires medication daily to stay healthy.

“I am caring for her, as I should be,” he said. “We do all those things. I don’t expect the entire world to put their life on hold for my mom. It’s my responsibility. She needs [her pills] to survive. She gets those pills from me. If you cut my business off and my life off, you’re not saving my mom from the virus. You’re killing her because you’re cutting her off from the insulin she needs.”

Another Niles business owner, Angel Robison, was in attendance. Robison owns Rise n’ Shine Café, which opened its doors last weekend in defiance of the no indoor dining pandemic orders from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“Are we going to stay here and just go bankrupt voluntarily or open your doors? It’s time to stand up,” Robison said. “This is our livelihood. We have to take care of our own families. It isn’t about everybody else. As long as we open up, safely, and we all do it together, what are they going to do? It’s about the people. It’s not about the government.”

Robison said she had received an “outpouring” of support from local residents and from residents around the state.

“We’ve got to do the right thing. We all have employees that work for us. What are they supposed to do?” Robison said. “We have to come together. We all have to stand up. I hope you all open your doors.”

Discussion continued as to different ways to elevate concerns, such as through business organizations.

By the end of the assembly, nearly an hour and a half later, Don Kennedy once again spoke with those assembled at The Grand LV.

“The argument for representation within decision making policy is not an argument for abandoning safety measures and protecting people at risk,” Kennedy said. “I think that’s the biggest lie that exists, on purpose or by accident. People need to understand that when we want to see the orders modified, it’s not saying we want to abolish safety measures. We care. We care about people at risk. I’m all about scarifying for the greater good. I did four years [of Marine service], and two years in Iraq. We care about our neighbors. We are just looking to have our voices heard.”

At the finish of the assembly, Don Kennedy and Paquette said they would like to have more conversations about dealing with COVID-19 mandates going forward.

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