Service industry still struggling a year after first COVID-19 cases confirmed in Michigan

Posted at 11:09 AM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-10 21:33:02-05

(WXYZ) — One year ago, many of us were probably thinking the COVID-19 pandemic would be temporary, as the restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of the virus brought closures, layoffs, and plenty of legal backlash.

"We've had people that used to come in two, three, four times a week that we haven't seen in 11 months," Corner Kitchen Chef Shannon Nowowicki said.

It's a familiar story for metro Detroit restaurant owners, who, for nearly a year now, haven't had business as usual in any sense of the phrase.

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Going back to 2020, as positive COVID cases continue to climb, it all started on March 16 when for the first time, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer temporarily closed movie theaters, gyms, casinos, and limited restaurants to carry-out and delivery only.

“I thought at that time that it would be for a few weeks. I was wrong," Cinema Detroit Co-Founder Paula Guthat said.

The order also temporarily closed concert venues like The Fillmore in downtown Detroit. It had a major ripple effect on people like Ami Cooper.

“I’m primarily a concert photographer. I do festivals and I do local shows. I do venues like the Fillmore," she said.

When those went dark, so did her regular income. Despite having a large following on social media, she, like thousands of others in metro Detroit, got behind on rent.

“I started to kind of push full throttle and do influencer-based work because of my social media following, which helped do a degree but still didn’t cover everything," she said. “You can have a giant network, but not everyone is paying then and clout doesn’t pay your bills.”

By March 22, Whitmer's executive order temporarily closed salons and tattoo parlors.

“Going back a year ago, it was extremely scary," Aqua Salon owner Julia Nicolaou said.

A day later on March 23, Whitmer signed a statewide stay-at-home order that was extended three times, lasting through May.

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It was rescinded on June 1, and by June 8, bars and restaurants were able to reopen with 50% indoor capacity.

On Oct. 9, movie theaters and bowling alleys reopened.

But, it all came to a halt on Nov. 18 when the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a "3-week pause," again closing indoor dining, bowling alleys, movie theaters and casinos.

Most of those reopened on Dec. 21, but indoor dining remained closed until Feb. 1, when it was able to resume with 25% capacity. On March 5, it was increased to 50%.

Now, the entertainment and service sectors are still just starting to crawl again. Salons statewide still operate at 25% capacity.

“When we started to re-open you know I lost half of my staff because some people were afraid to come back," Nicolaou said.

“We had four people working part-time and they’re all gone," Guthat added.

Cinema Detroit, which is still closed for the time being, did its best to pivot, offering virtual programming, streaming and drive-ins, but the latter costs a lot to put on, and they just broke even.

“Overall revenue is down like 90 percent," Guthat said.

The restrictions sparked outrage, too, with protests at the Capitol. There were also plenty of lawsuits claiming the governor overstepped her authority by continuing to issue restrictions without legislative approval, and the Michigan Supreme Court agreed.

Twelve months in, some business owners still have a glass-half-full outlook.

“Right now Cinema Detroit is sort of to be determined on when we’ll re-open but we are very much looking forward to a rebound," Guthat said.

“I’ve always been like an optimistic person so in my case that’s the thing that keeps me going," Nicolaou added.

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