LANSING, Mich (AP/WOOD) — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday said she was closing indoor seating in bars in parts of the state, including a city with a bar that has been linked to a rising number of infections.

Whitmer also signed a bill allowing bars and restaurants to sell cocktails-to-go in an effort to help those businesses.

Bars won’t have to close down completely, according to a new executive order, and the Upper Peninsula and much of northern Michigan are not subject to the order due to low numbers of reported COVID-19 virus cases. All bars may still keep open their outdoor patios.

Ask Pickwick Tavern owner John Rusilowski what Whitmer’s order means for him and the answer comes quick:

“Like no business, total loss of income,” he said of his Grand Rapids bar. “We don’t have any place for outdoor, so, once again, shut down.

“Three months of shutdown, now three weeks just back open, it’s hard to say if the doors will reopen,” he added.

The order, which took effect at 11 p.m. Wednesday, covers establishments for whom alcohol sales make up 70% of sales. The state says that’s mostly traditional bars, nightclubs and strip clubs. Breweries, distilleries, wineries and those places that make their own spirits are not affected. 

“Following recent outbreaks tied to bars, I am taking this action today to slow the spread of the virus and keep people safe,” Whitmer, a Democrat, said in a news release. “If we want to be in a strong position to reopen schools for in-person classroom instruction this fall, then we need to take aggressive action right now to ensure we don’t wipe out all the progress we have made.”

Since mid-June, 119 people who went to Harper’s Brewpub in East Lansing have tested positive for the virus, according to Ingham County health officials. Nineteen other people with close contact to those cases also have tested positive. All of those who were sickened at the bar were between the ages of 16 and 28.

Whitmer said in a news release that the outbreak tied to Harper’s is not an isolated incident, and her order covers the state’s largest cities, including Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids. Upticks in COVID-19 cases have been seen in other bars in Michigan and other states such as Florida and Texas.

Other states have seen harsher restrictions on bars to fight the coronavirus. Florida banned alcohol consumption in bars on June 26, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom has closed bars in seven counties, including Los Angeles.

Michigan’s new cocktails-to-go law allows bars and restaurants to provide takeout and delivery of cocktails. It also allows local governments to determine “social districts” for people to consume alcoholic drinks from bars and restaurants in designated outdoor areas.

The Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, which represents some 8,500 businesses, welcomed the cocktails-to-go legislation but expressed dismay at Whitmer’s new order.

“Our biggest fear is that it’s going to impact the smallest of the small businesses,” Mark Ellis, executive director of the MLBA, told News 8. “I believe it’s an unintended consequence by the choosing of the number or choosing alcohol versus food.” 

He said the vast majority of bars are working to comply with state health mandates and should not be punished. He said it will be the small-town watering holes and family-owned establishments that could end up crippled by the order, which he said includes no aid or assistance for those impacted. 

Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association President and Chief Executive Justin Winslow responded somberly to Whitmer’s action.

“We recognize that Gov. Whitmer’s latest executive order was largely a stay of execution for the restaurant industry, given the more expansive measures taken in several other states,” Winslow said Wednesday evening in a statement.

“This order is just the latest reminder that if we want to retain the things we love — like a great meal with friends and family — we all must bear greater responsibility for our collective safety or grieve its absence,” he added.

Restaurants and bars in the state closed dine-in services shortly before St. Patrick’s Day at Whitmer’s order and started reopening in northern Michigan on May 22. The rest of the state reopened indoor services on June 8.



Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

News 8’s Barton Deiters contributed to this report.