Michigan orders restaurants to collect customers’ information amid COVID-19 surges

Lansing — Michigan restaurants will have to begin tracking the names and numbers of customers in case of COVID-19 outbreaks starting Monday under a policy announced Thursday as the state experiences surges in cases of the virus. 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services unveiled orders that limit non-residential indoor gatherings without fixed seating to 50 people — the limit was 500 — and restrict individual table sizes at restaurants to six people.

The health department’s order on Thursday came on a day when Michigan set a daily case record at 3,675, along with 41 more deaths. That’s the most new confirmed cases in a single day during the seven-month pandemic for the state.

The coronavirus trends in Michigan are “incredibly concerning,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive. As of Wednesday, the state reported 1,348 adults with COVID-19 in hospitals, three times the 405 adults with COVID-19 in hospitals one month ago.

“We are taking targeted actions via the order to address areas that are particularly severe sources of spread, and we are issuing guidance that is a very clear road map for what we need to do bring cases down,” said Robert Gordon, the director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

A sign at a restaurant in downtown Lansing near the Michigan Capitol tells people to wear masks until they are seated on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

In addition, Thursday’s order moves the 17-county Traverse City region back to Phase 4 in the state’s economic reopening plan. Previously, that region was the only one in Phase 5, a status that brought some eased restrictions on masks in schools and gatherings.

For bars, restaurants and social events outside private homes, indoor party sizes at a single table will be restricted to six people. Bars and restaurants will also be required to take names and contact information from customers to support contact tracing if necessary, a press release said. Contact tracing is the act of tracking individuals who’ve been near individuals who later test positive for COVID-19.

The new order reads: “All dine-in food service establishments must maintain accurate records of the names and phone numbers of patrons who purchase food for consumption on the premises, and the date and time of entry.”

The orders require restaurants, along with schools and other businesses, to provide names and phone numbers of individuals with possible COVID-19 exposure to local health officials “to aid in contact tracing and case investigation efforts.”

There are 12 outbreaks in Michigan associated with bars or restaurants, according to the state’s press release.

The department’s new orders also reduce from 500 people to 50 people the maximum gathering size for indoor gatherings, such as weddings, parties and banquets, which occur in nonresidential settings without fixed seating.

“This change responds to global evidence that COVID’s explosive growth is powered by events where large-scale outbreaks have occurred, and that indoor settings are as much as 20 times likelier to drive outbreaks than outdoor settings,” a press release said.

MDHHS Chief Deputy for Health and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun speaks, as Governor Gretchen Whitmer listens, during a daily press conference, Tuesday, May 26, 2020.

Currently, Michigan is tracking 34 outbreaks related to social events, such as trips by families and friends, bridal showers and weddings, funerals and outings at social clubs, and bowling parties.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, criticized the order as proof Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had “chosen to go it alone.”

“Earlier this week, Speaker @LeeChatfield and I again reached out to @GovWhitmer, asking her to work with us to combat our recent COVID-19 surge,” Shirkey said in a tweet. “Instead of taking us up on this offer, she has once again chosen to go it alone.”

The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association was told of the decision Wednesday but noted the department has been communicating with the state about the pending regulation. 

Still, President and CEO Justin Winslow expressed concerns about the liability restaurants might face in collecting and managing logs of patron names and phone numbers.

In May, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee retracted a requirement mandating restaurants collect customer contact information after widespread uproar over the decision, including from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. 

The ACLU said the data gathering was a risk “to people’s fundamental rights to privacy and association,” the Seattle Times reported.

In addition, Winslow noted, the policy seems misplaced considering the state’s own data on outbreaks suggest “this industry is not what’s causing transmission.”

Of the 446 new and ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in Michigan, 10 or a little more than 2% are associated with restaurants, according to state data. Another two outbreaks are associated with bars. The outbreak incidence at restaurants has decreased in recent weeks, Winslow said. 

“We’re all in this together for better and safer outcomes,” he said. “I’m just not sure this is a policy that has us going in that direction.”    

Michigan is experiencing increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The state also reported more new cases of COVID-19 last week, 13,129, than any other week since the pandemic began here in March. This week is on pace to break that record, meaning it would be the third straight to set a weekly new case record.

The percentage of COVID-19 tests bringing positive results is also on the rise. Last week, the percentage was 5.4%, according to current state data, the highest rate since May, when far less testing was happening. The rate was 3.3%, three weeks ago.

On Wednesday, Whitmer said the COVID-19 numbers in the state were “very concerning.” She noted the surges were occurring with Halloween and the football game between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan this weekend. Also Election Day is on Tuesday.

“We don’t want to drop our guard and see our numbers skyrocket,” Whitmer said Wednesday. “And that is a very real possibility. Our hospitals are seeing it. We are seeing it in our numbers and our positivity rate. And that’s why we all have to keep taking this very, very seriously.”

Through Thursday, Michigan had reported 171,220 cases and 7,298 deaths linked to the virus. The state considers 114,939 people “recovered.”

cmauger@detroitnews.com