Story by Zach Avery, News Editor
On March 2, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that capacity restrictions on Michigan businesses in response to the Coronavirus would be largely rescinded, allowing for upwards of 50% customer capacity in most industries, indoor and outdoor.
The change was encouraged by a letter led by the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, cosigned by 13 other business organizations whose memberships are made up of all industry types, that called for the reopening of restaurants as data continued to show a downward trend in new COVID cases in Michigan.
This “Reopen Michigan Safely” Coalition has since moved on to advising for no further extensions to the indoor office space ban that is currently set to expire on April 14, as well as advocating for specialty and seasonal businesses, such as florists and wedding venues, that are extremely vulnerable to outdoor capacity restrictions in terms of serving the most customers possible in a given season.
“We have been advocates for our area businesses,” Kenneth James, the director of inclusion at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, said. “However, we want to, of course, stay within the state guidelines.”
Indeed, there is a fine line between granting Michigan businesses the freedom to pivot and experiment in order to maintain a COVID-19 conscious space, and risking the health and safety of both Grand Rapids business owners and customers. Business leaders and organizations, like the Grand Rapids Chamber, implement themselves into that balance in order to work towards equitable access of necessary resources, like Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for all small businesses.
While grant funds from organizations such as the Grand Rapids Chamber have helped improve the equitable access of resources for many Grand Rapids businesses, some industries are struggling simply out of a need for more in-person foot traffic.
“There are two sides of the coin,” James said. “Something is better than nothing, but then there is also ‘we need more.’ I have heard both arguments.”
The past year has had an impact on all fields of business, but the most damaging effect has come onto “customer facing businesses,” such as bars and restaurants. For these Michigan businesses, there is a reliance on in-person foot traffic for reliable income.
“I remember driving by a buffet that had shut down, and then a week later they had created a drive-thru window,” James said. “Something that didn’t exist before; that’s a unique way to pivot.”
With warmer temperatures also comes more business for many outdoor dining restaurants across the city. The Grand Rapids Chamber is hopeful that business leaders such as themselves will continue to rally around vulnerable businesses, like breweries, and continue preaching a philanthropic frame of mind.
James told a story of how some businesses have even passed up on their Grand Rapids Chamber fund distribution because the owner felt that they’ve adapted well enough for now, and that the money could be better spent on another business in town.
“That’s just a testament to who we are as a community,” James said, “That’s what, for me, makes it worth it when we do the work that we do.”