‘I’m Scared’ Says Business Owner Still Closed By COVID EOs
September 1, 2020
Don Slimmen, owner of the 16-lane Spartan West Bowling Center in Ludington, told a legislative panel Wednesday morning that he will be out of business in 30 days if he’s not allowed to reopen within that time.
The business, which includes a restaurant and bar, is down from 12 employees to one, and two loans from the federal government are nearly exhausted.
“I’ve got about 30 days left and my doors will be locked and I’ll be gone. I’ve operated this bowling center for 37 years, trying to be a good business (owner), trying to take care of people, put smiles on people’s faces, and I didn’t go out of business because I’m a crummy business owner,” Slimmen said. “I’m scared. I’ve never been scared in my life. I’ve worked in prison systems. I’ve done all sorts of things and never been scared. I was born and raised in Detroit and I was never scared in Detroit. And now, I am scared. I am scared to death that I’m going to lose everything that I have worked for my whole entire life.”
The Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic took nearly three hours of testimony from owners of small businesses — including ice arenas, gyms, a go-kart and entertainment center, a wedding venue, and a dance studio — on the impact the Governor’s Executive Order business shutdowns have had on their operations and their plans for safely reopening.
Select Committee Chair Rep. Matt Hall (R-Emmett Twp.) said the committee is working hard so that small-business owners’ voices can be heard with the hopes of getting the Governor’s attention.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Tuesday she’s looking “in earnest” at when still-shuttered businesses will be allowed to open, but she’s made no decisions about that, yet.
These businesses, classified at one time as “non-essential,” have been more vocal about reopening since the Governor’s decision to allow the Detroit casinos to reopen with limited capacity..
“Gov. Whitmer’s administration needs to look at these reopening plans – which were developed months ago – and get serious about finding solutions,” Hall said in a statement released after the hearing. “We heard Michigan has relied more on federal support than other states and when that starts to run out, we will need an economy that can support that drop-off. This starts by allowing people to resume their livelihoods.”
Trying to provide some balance, Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) contended that economic indicators, like consumer spending and consumer confidence, show Michigan has had a better, quicker recovery than many surrounding states, certainly better than states that have had second waves of COVID spread.
Hertel said the state should not “become a place where the politics of the situation actually influences what happens on the public health side.” He contended that in the 1918 pandemic, Denver reopened too quickly and ended up taking much longer to recover economically because people lost faith in the government.
“When you say something is OK, when the state says it is OK to go out and do things, and there is a second wave and people get hurt, it means everything lags behind because people don’t have faith in what actually happens any longer. What Michigan has shown is that people do have faith. Consumer confidence is higher here than almost anywhere in the country,” Hertel said.
Chris McCrumb, owner of a destination wedding venue in Traverse City known as the BlueBridge Event Center, said his entire family – including his wife, both their sets of parents, his sons, daughter, and an aunt and uncle – jumped into the business back in 2016.
“On the financial front, we mortgaged our home, cashed in some of our retirement and borrowed money from family members. In short, we were all in,” McCrumb said.
They had just started to make it pay off last year.
“To date, we have had 43 postponements and cancellations and the number is likely to get closer to 55 in total, which will cost us somewhere in the neighborhood of $750,000 to $850,000 this year,” he said.
In northern Michigan, most businesses have to make their money between April and November, and if those months don’t go well, they know it will be a long winter just trying to survive, he said.
“I believe in my head, my gut, my heart, my soul that what is happening in this country and in this state is not right, and things need to change and they need to change soon,” McCrumb told the committee. “The attempts to stop a virus from doing what viruses do is dramatically impacting this country in every way, financially, emotionally, relationally, socially and spiritually. The price being paid, especially in areas like northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, where the virus is essentially a non-issue, is far too great. In my opinion, the damage being done in our effort to stop the virus is far greater than the damage being done by the virus itself.”
Jordan Munsters, President and CEO of High Caliber Karting in Okemos, proposed the creation of a regulatory agency to certify who has taken the proper steps to reopen safely, noting that would also give the state a way to enforce the rules on businesses that don’t take the right steps to open properly.
His business – which includes go-karts, arcade games, ax throwing, and other forms of entertainment – prepared to reopen three times. Twice the Governor issued new Executive Orders “that changed rules” and kept it closed.
“We spent a considerable amount of time and effort and money – over a quarter-million dollars between PPE, training, staff, and payroll – to keep things so we could take it serious and do it right,” Munsters said.
That included training staff three different times on the latest rules and procedures for safely operating the business. Other improvements included adding a guard to enforce mask-wearing, adding a dedicated sanitation team, updating to digital menus, adding contact tracing, reducing capacity, adding social distancing markers, and buying a $12,000 ultraviolet decontamination system.
The business also invested $40,000 in an outdoor activity space.
Then came Executive Order 160, shutting down both indoor and outdoor entertainment centers. But since the facility is a restaurant and bar, with entertainment, attorneys told Munsters the business should be OK to reopen.
“We opened up the business and within one day, we had a police officer show up and say, ‘I’m sorry but you guys need to close.’ We walked him through and showed him everything we were doing. We had already met with the health department, the fire marshal and the police to show them what we were doing, and they said, ‘we are excited to see you guys reopen.’ That was days before Executive Order 160 came out. I explained to the police officer that I feel like we are doing all of the steps that are necessary with this and we will proceed forward with this. Two days later, we received a cease-and-desist order and we shut our doors,” Munsters told the committee.
He said his business is one of 13 in the state to receive a cease-and-desist order so far.
He said the business has brought in about $3,000 in the last six months, but its recurring expenses are close to $50,000 per month, even as it is currently closed.
The committee also heard from indoor ice rink owners who, along with Sen. Michael MacDonald (R-Sterling Heights), believe they can reopen safely. While their facilities are built for crowds of 1,000 people, on most days they operate at well below 10% capacity. Usually, rink users consist of about 25 young hockey players practicing on the ice, with one parent in the building, the rink owners said.
MacDonald recently submitted some 4,700 letters from hockey moms, players and coaches urging the reopening of rinks.
Rink owners told the committee that when they participated in a workgroup on how they could reopen safely, they were lumped in with much larger facilities, like Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
Rep. Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann) contended, in a statement released after the hearing, that small businesses can only hold their heads above water for so long, and many have gone for four or five months without being able to generate income.
“The Governor says she isn’t going to be bullied into opening these places back up. I don’t think simply wanting to make a living and put food on the table for your family is bullying anybody,” O’Malley said. “It’s simply trying to make it as we see unprecedented times in our state — and Gov. Whitmer is saying she is taking it upon herself to keep them closed and hurting. So who’s the bully?”