TRAVERSE CITY — Several northern Michigan breweries and restaurants closed at the beginning of the new year because several members of their staff tested positive for COVID-19.
At least three breweries and restaurants closed for several days and experienced five- to six-figure losses; others only closed for an afternoon. Some restaurants, despite having staff test positive, were able to stay open.
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How widespread the positive tests were among staff determined owners’ decisions.
Three breweries and restaurants that closed for several days were Short’s Brewing Company in Bellaire and Rare Bird Brewpub and Firefly Kitchen and Bars in Traverse City.
All three owners, Scott Newman-Bale, CEO of Short’s, Tina Schuett, co-owner of Rare Bird and Trish Wiltse, president and co-owner of Firefly, said they experienced five- to six-figure losses from the nearly week-long closures.
While she said it “came at the perfect time” because it was naturally a slow time of year for them, Schuett said she estimates Rare Bird took a $15,000 hit due to their closure “on the low end.” She said Rare Bird usually does anywhere from $6,000 to $20,000 in sales, depending on how busy it is.
All three also said it was their first significant closure because of COVID-19 apart from the mandated closure of restaurants in March 2020.
Wiltse, who also owns Bubba’s Restaurant and The Kitchen, had to close Bubba’s for eight days in November, reopening the day after Thanksgiving.
During the January closures, Newman-Bale said he had 18 or 19 out of 180 employees test positive; Schuett said she had seven out of 30 staff test positive; and Wiltse said she had five to 10 or 11 staffers test positive out of about 100 employees across all three restaurants, using at-home rapid tests.
Newman-Bale said he got COVID-19 himself, after contracting it once already in early 2020, and that his wife also got sick, despite both of them getting vaccinated and boosted in November.
The upside was that Newman-Bale said he gave away food that would have otherwise gone bad to Spark in the Dark, a network of Facebook groups across Michigan which connects those giving away items with those who need them.
The Jan. 8 post garnered 22 comments and gave away “several pounds of sliced sandwich turkey, sliced ham, and a lot of roasted mushrooms” to 10 people in about two hours, Abagail Mckiernan, executive director at Spark in the Dark, said.
“I think it was a huge asset to our community, especially at the beginning of the pandemic,” she said, talking about how the group launched four new groups during the pandemic.
But, while all restaurants have been affected by the pandemic, not all experienced long closures.
“I think more than being closed, places have had to restrict their hours,” Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewing Guild, said.
Farm Club Owner Gary Jonas said one of their servers tested positive and said she wasn’t coming in, and three to four other staff were already quarantined due to exposures, resulting in them closing early one day.
Matt Therrien, owner of Lake Ann Brewing Company, said they haven’t had to close but did have one employee test positive on Jan. 2 due to a Christmas party, as well as one staff-person test positive in September.
“We haven’t been super COVID-concerned,” he said, saying he believes his business has adapted to the pandemic rather than taken a hit.
Justine Therrien, Lake Ann Brewing bartender and Matt’s niece, said she was the employee that tested positive, after hanging out with four people at someone’s house, with two other people testing positive in that encounter.
“I honestly didn’t think I had it,” she said, saying she was surprised she had made it this long without getting COVID-19.
Justine said after she tested positive with an at-home rapid test, she had one day of symptoms but still took eight to nine days off of work at Lake Ann Brewing to quarantine in her room, to avoid getting her roommates sick. She said they both took tests and tested negative.
She said she took a couple of hikes by herself but said quarantining was “kind of boring” but is now recovered and back to work.
Rick Schmitt, co-owner of Stormcloud Brewing in Frankfort, similarly said four employees tested positive out of 35 to 40 employees recently which wasn’t sufficient enough for them to close.
They did close once during the summer of 2020 for a couple days after several college-aged staff went out on a boat together, resulting in one staffer testing positive.
“I don’t know if we’re doing it better than everyone else,” he said.