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PI county may back businesses who buck state

ROGERS CITY — If Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extends her administration’s ban on indoor dining and bar services beyond Feb.1, officials in Presque Isle County may take action to support businesses that reopen, anyway.

Since November, restaurants and bars have been closed to indoor service. Whitmer last week extended the ban through Feb. 1 but said there’s a good chance the ban could be lifted then.

During a county board meeting on Thursday, Commissioner Carl Altman — a Republican who owns the Night Hawk Inn in Hawks — suggested the county could draft and sign a manifesto supporting business owners who decide to open against the will of the state.

Altman said the action would be similar to what a small Upper Peninsula county recently did to help restart its economy and support its small businesses, which have been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic and government-mandated shutdowns meant to slow the spread of the virus.

Whitmer’s administration has fined and imposed licensing sanctions against businesses that have ignored the administration’s orders. Such penalties could still be imposed if the county voted on the proposed manifesto.

A statewide restaurant group sued to try and stop Whitmer’s latest rules, but a federal judge refused to immediately halt Whitmer’s indoor dining ban and the group later dropped its lawsuit.

Last week, several Baraga County commissioners and the county’s sheriff, prosecutor, clerk, and treasurer all signed a manifesto that places the state on notice that county officials will no longer enforce the state’s COVID-19 mandates and restrictions.

Altman said he said he was happy to hear that Whitmer may open restaurants and bars back up with restrictions, but, if she didn’t, local officials may have to go to bat for business owners whose livelihoods are being taken from them.

“It’s been preached to us over and over again, for over a year, on what we need to do to protect people,” Altman said. “We know what we need to do to comply, but aren’t being given a chance to do it. Right now, I would say among the people I talk to in the county, it is 10-to-one in favor of allowing businesses to open. We believe we are being treated unfairly.”

Commissioner John Chappa, a Democrat, said he understands the impact some businesses have felt during the pandemic. He said taking on the state may not be the best course of action, however, because it could make a bad situation worse.

Chappa added that the local government needs to continue to follow the recommendation of those who are experts on pandemics and COVID-19.

“The state holds the hammer, with the liquor licenses and food licenses,” he said. “We have a District Health Department with qualified staff who can make informed decisions with regard to community health. We should let them do their jobs.”

The Lighthouse Restaurant is attached to the Nautical Lanes Bowling alley in Rogers City. Owner Brian Bannasch said that, if the county were to allow his business to open for indoor dining, he would do so because he believes local government likely has a better grasp on how the pandemic is impacting the area and is confident it would make the right decision for its residents and businesses.

“If the county felt it was in the best interest of the citizens, I would open and follow its lead,” Bannasch said. “I feel they have enough information on cases and what is going on locally, so I would abide by what they recommend. We have to do something.”

Bannasch said he is aware that defying the state mandates could come with consequences, but he still pledged to do what the county believes is right.

Bannasch said his customers have helped to keep the restaurant afloat for months, but his business is struggling. He said his bowling alley business has taken a large hit because it was closed for 215 days last year, and remains so today, despite Whitmer allowing it to reopen with restrictions.

Bannasch said the current restrictions are so firm that, if he opened it now, he would struggle to break even.

“This has been catastrophic,” he said. “We have had zero business because we have been forced to close. The state has allowed us to open, but requirements make it difficult to do it. We wouldn’t be able to sell food or beverages, and only members of the same family can come together, so I just decided to stay closed.”

Bannasch said he has gone above and beyond the government recommendations for cleaning and sterilizing practices and even has an air-filtration system running.

“I understand there needs to be restrictions, like masks and social distancing — I don’t have a problem with that, Bannasch said. “But we haven’t really been given a chance to show we can do it safely.”

Altman said he isn’t sure the full board would vote on a manifesto if the restrictions are extended again. He said the county could just mirror what Baraga County did.

“We’ll see what happens,” Altman said. “Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that.”

The county board meets again at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 29.

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