Berrien commissioners consider drafting resolution opposing restaurant restrictions

BERRIEN COUNTY – Quiet extension of restaurant capacity limits statewide took center discussion for the Berrien County Board of Commissioners Thursday morning.

The commissioners discussed at their regular meeting the quiet extension of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services epidemic order announced Jan. 22, which reopened restaurants to 25-percent capacity. The epidemic order was originally was set to expire on Feb. 21.

The order was extended through March 29, without announcement, on Feb. 4.

In light of the extension, the board of commissioners agreed to work through the next week on a resolution to vote on, or a letter to the state of Michigan, voicing disagreement with the extension. The board agreed to work on a communication, with some members fully supporting the measure, and others supporting with caution.

“I saw media coverage that the restriction was carried out for many weeks to come,” said County Administrator Brian Dissette. “Over the last week, I have communicated with the chair and some of the board about next week’s regular meeting. Arthur [Havlicek, president of the Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber] has agreed to come and talk to the board about some of their efforts to encourage Berrien County residents to go out and frequent local restaurants. With that said, Havlicek will be asking the board to consider a nonbinding endorsement of their restaurant week program.”

Commissioner Julie Wuerfel encouraged the board to move forward with a communication.

“I’ve been pushing this since mid-January,” Wuerfel said. “We need guidelines and a regional approach.”

Discussion continued as commissioner Teri Freehling highlighted Berrien County’s unique positioning as a border county to Indiana, which has businesses operating with looser pandemic restrictions than Michigan is currently mandating. She spoke in support of a regional approach to pandemic regulation, wanting a more transparent approach to which metrics corresponded with each pullback or reopening.

Commissioner Jon Hinkelman expressed caution in his comments on the matter.

“It’s a little bit difficult when you say you’re going to take a regional approach. If the state of Michigan did that, [we become] a border county,” Hinkleman said. “So many of the businesses in Indiana are benefitting, and we are not. If we adopt that, then Van Buren becomes the next border county. Whatever we craft, a letter or resolution, getting business back to the point of doing business is what we need to do. Whether it’s a regional approach and that we are located close to the border, I don’t know if that’s a fair argument. We all, as Michiganders, need to get back to business.”

The intention of the communication was appreciated by commissioner Rayonte Bell, though he wanted to ensure the county continued keeping the Berrien County Health Department in mind.

“We acknowledge the good job that they have done in Berrien County as far as getting vaccines out to the public to those who are eligible,” Bell said. “I think we should at least return the favor of considering them when we are making these decisions because we don’t want to possibly overwhelm our health system in Berrien County if our numbers were to start trending back up because of reopening. I think we need to support our local businesses, but also be careful with this step and also consider the lives of our constituents. We are still in the pandemic. We are not out of the woods yet.”

Multiple commissioners, including Ezra Scott and Bob Harrison, wanted a scientific approach to the reopening, including continuing to follow guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Elliot compared the business health of restaurants in Michigan to those of prisoners of war and sick patients. He described restaurant businesses as a sick patient that needs help and goes to the emergency room for care, and being met with one glass of water and minimal sustenance, that would not allow them to heal.

“This imperfect analogy mirrors the status of Michigan restaurants who cannot survive on a 25-percent occupancy limit,” Elliot said. “They are on the risk of failing. We already know restaurants who have failed.”

The action of a letter or resolution will be worked on by board members for the next Board of Commissioners meeting, set for 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 25.

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