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Alpena-area restaurants reel from state shutdown

Local government meetings, more also canceled

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Black Sheep owner Kris Cronger shuts off the bar’s open sign on Monday at 3p.m. to comply with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order forcing the closure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The bar will offer curbside pickup, including today for its annual St. Patrick’s Day dinners.

ALPENA — One by one, open signs were switched to closed at many businesses in Northeast Michigan on Monday amid a growing crackdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s mandated closure of in-house services at bars, restaurants, theaters, and more is in effect until at least March 30, some businesses are planning creative ways to weather the storm, including delivery and takeout options for bars and restaurants and online classes for gyms.

As of Monday night, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in Northeast Michigan. Munson Healthcare reported Monday it had screened and tested two patients –one at its hospital in Traverse City and one at its hospital in Gaylord –who later tested positive for the disease.

Meanwhile, Denise Bryan, administrative health officer for Northeast Michigan’s District Health Department Nos. 2 and 4, is asking only essential workers go to work and everybody else stay home.

Bryan is asking the public to “choose wisely” at this time.

“It’s here, it’s going to turn up, but this will really help with a slow introduction of the sick people into the hospital system, instead of exponentially having droves of sick people needing hospitalization,” she said.

Bryan said DHD No. 4 has submitted 26 specimens for testing and DHD No. 2 has submitted nine specimens for testing.

The closures affected more than businesses as officials try to force “social distancing” to prevent the spread of the virus. Whitmer last week ordered schools closed until April 6. On Monday, several local governments canceled meetings or tried to host them in ways the public could access the meeting without attending it — with mixed success.

The Alpena Municipal Council, for example, made its Monday meeting available to the public via the internet and phone audio. However, portions of the meeting were hard to hear and interpret.

Meanwhile, some businesses were closing shop for the next two weeks, while others were trying to expand ways of serving the public without bringing them inside.

The Alpena Downtown Development Authority is maintaining a list on its website explaining how each business downtown is operating.

“It is important that we get the word out to let people know that they are still open and just doing things a little different,” DDA Executive Director Anne Gentry said. “There are ways we can support our local businesses during this.”

‘THIS IS REALLY BAD’

On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, one of the busiest days of the year for restaurants and taverns, store owners were in a state of shock, wondering what the future holds for their stores and employees.

John Fisher owns the Sandbar and Grill on Long Lake Road and employs 15 people.

In Long Lake, winters are slow, and Fisher depends on holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day and the summer rush to carry him through the slow times. Fisher said business was down about 40% for the last couple weeks, even before Whitmer’s order.

“We were considering delivery or curbside pick-up, but I crunched the numbers, and I just can’t make it work, so I’m going to close until this all passes,” Fisher said. “This is really bad, but it needs to be done.”

‘WE ARE GOING TO RALLY’

Kris Cronger and her husband, Paul, own the Black Sheep in downtown Alpena.

Kris Cronger said she had a crying spell when she learned of the governor’s action, but quickly began making plans about how to keep business going and finding work for her five employees.

She said today’s St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage meals will still be available for takeout. She said people can just call in advance. Moving forward, there should be more delivery options, she said.

“We are going to rally and pick ourselves up,” she said. “We’ll also do everything we can to help our employees. We’re really lucky, because we have a very good customer base and people who want us to be here, and they will help us overcome this.”

‘PRETTY TRAUMATIC FOR US’

At the North Coney Island restaurant in Alpena, booths were full at noon on Monday as customers took advantage of last-for-a-while opportunities to eat out.

Alpena residents Ron and Lana Cartwright were at the diner to use up a coupon, their last chance before it expired on April 1.

They’ll miss eating out, they said, but still hope to patronize local drive-thrus and carryout options.

As of mid-afternoon Monday, the Coney Island staff hadn’t decided whether to keep their carryout service open.

“We’re leaning toward just shutting it right down,” said owner Lynn Tingler. “They’re telling people to stay home, so why would I want to do takeout and have people out?”

The family-owned diner, tucked into a corner of Bear Pointe Plaza on Alpena’s south end, has never shut down since it opened in 1971, Tingler said.

“This is pretty traumatic for us, actually,” she said. “Tell everybody not to forget about us.”

It’s restaurant employees he worries about, said Coney Island patron Bob Wesley.

“If it’s overreacting and nobody dies, then it’s not overreacting,” said another diner, Ron Cartwright.

‘YOU CAN STILL GET YOUR FAVORITE FOODS’

Heidi Muszynski, a server at Austin Brothers’ Beer Co., said the restaurant closed to the public at noon on Monday, but patrons can still order carryout. She said the brewpub is unable to refill growlers now, but can send packaged beer and growlers out.

A post on the company’s Facebook page said hours of operation have been adjusted to noon to 8 p.m.

The Big Boy in Alpena will open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and offer pick-up.

Gary McDowell, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said in a statement it’s important for residents to take the steps necessary to protect public health, but state officials realize the importance of supporting local retailers and eateries.

“You can still get your favorite foods, just in a different way than before, as we work together to reduce the spread,” McDowell said. “I urge you to continue to support your area businesses, who are often the foundation of our local communities, by buying gift certificates for later use, getting take-out or delivery.”

‘WE’LL GET THROUGH IT’

Whitmer’s order affected far more than restaurants. Gyms, theaters, movie theaters, and other businesses also had to close shop.

Norm Sommerfeld manages the APlex, a recreation and entertainment facility that also offers space for sports like gymnastics, karate, tennis, and pickleball. He said the facility would be closed until another announcement is made by state officials.

“We have no revenue coming in because everything is canceled, and the thing of it is … it’s not like you get to stop paying your DTE bill or any of those,” he said. “So it’s devastating to a place like ours.”

But, he said, “We’ll get through it.”

Bay Athletic Club owner Trina Gray said the business would continue to provide services to its members online to encourage them to continue exercising during this stressful time.

“People deal with anxiety and all kinds of feelings of uncertainty in times like this, and exercise is such a healthy outlet for stress relief,” she said. “People can turn to unhealthy forms of stress relief like overdrinking, overeating, just being deep in anxiety or worry, so we really want to encourage our members and clients to continue exercising during this time.”

Gray said members still have access to live classes through a video conference line four times a day from now through the end of March. The athletic club will also post five-minute mini-workouts called “Get Fit in Five” on its Facebook page.

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