Judge refuses to block ban on Michigan indoor dining

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DETROIT — Bars and restaurants lost a challenge Wednesday to Michigan’s ban on indoor dining and immediately warned about business failures and deep job losses if the restriction linked to the coronavirus is extended past next week.

U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney turned down a request for an injunction with seven days left in the three-week ban. It was ordered in mid-November by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration in response to a distressing rise in virus cases.

“The court finds that a plausible explanation for the emergency order exists: Restaurant patrons cannot wear a mask while eating or drinking,” Maloney said. “Plaintiffs complain that they are being treated differently than similar businesses, but as the court noted in its previous order, individuals can patronize the businesses that remain open while wearing a mask.”

The Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association and some restaurants sued state health director Robert Gordon. They said they can safely provide indoor dining and were being treated unfairly when compared to other businesses.

High schools and colleges also were told to stop in-person classes and prep sports for three weeks. Casinos, movie theaters and bowling alleys also are closed, and gyms can’t host group exercises.

The head of the restaurant group said he’ll ask Gordon to “provide clear and specific data” that would justify extended closures. Whitmer on Tuesday wouldn’t tip her hand when asked if the dining ban will continue past Dec. 8.

“Presumptions and generalizations will not suffice and should no longer be tolerated given the significant human toll they have wrought from closing restaurants for a second time this year,” Justin Winslow said, referring to a shutdown in spring.

“We have ideas and reasonable solutions to offer,” he said.

The association said approximately 2,000 Michigan restaurants have closed this year.

The health department, meanwhile, reported 6,955 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide Wednesday and 81 additional deaths. Michigan’s seven-day case average is down from 7,370 two weeks ago.

“The science is settled: Public health experts from around the nation and world say these types of actions must be taken to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases,” Gordon said after the court decision.

The ban on dining has been met with some defiance. At least four restaurants have been hit with $1,000-a-day fines for serving meals indoors. Regulators also have yanked liquor licenses.

“We will be opening again after these parties feel like we have suffered enough and graciously allow us to get back to business,” says a sign at the Mine Shaft and Rock House Grill & Tavern in Houghton.

Maloney considered the restaurant group’s claims under the federal constitution but declined to address whether the law used by the health department violates the state constitution. The judge said he might ask the Michigan Supreme Court for guidance on that point as the case continues.

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