Southwest Michigan business owners and employees are seeking answers after the state issued a stay-at-home executive order Monday meant to fight the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order directing all Michigan businesses and operations to temporarily suspend in-person operations that are not necessary to sustain or protect life.

Effective at 12:01 a.m. today, for at least the next three weeks, individuals may only leave their home or place of residence under very limited circumstances. The order is set to end at 11:59 p.m. on April 13.

Among the businesses that will remain open under the executive order includes grocery stores, gas stations, health care facilities, banks or credit unions, liquor stores, hardware stores, pharmacies, laundromats, auto shops, utilities and chemistry companies.

The biggest sector to be affected by Monday’s stay-at-home executive order is the retail industry. Any retailers selling non-food items that have not already closed are expected to do so.

Schools, bars and restaurants were given an extended period of time in which they would remain closed. Bars and restaurants are expected to remain open for takeout orders only. State officials are urging residents to have food delivered as opposed to picking it up.

Some businesses have gotten creative through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lakeside Liquor in Stevensville remains open, but is only serving five customers at a time. They are asked to stand six feet apart while inside the store.

Silver Beach Pizza began offering curbside pick-up below the bluff and has seen a line of cars on a daily basis.

David Costas, general manager at the St. Joseph pizzeria, said they introduced the makeshift drive-thru last Monday. Employees are stationed outside with headsets and ring up a person’s order once they arrive. They’ve also instituted paying over the phone to reduce in-person contact.

Costas said the line got out of control Friday when Silver Beach Pizza was offering a special. But he said they’ve been working out the kinks since introducing the drive-thru last week.

“The amount of interest overwhelmed our capabilities,” Costas said in reference to Friday night. “It’s been quite the adjustment, but the community has been awesome for us. We’re just trying to abide by all the recommendations of the health care professionals and keep everyone’s jobs.”

Not all restaurants are staying open in the midst of the state’s executive order.

Full Circle Cafe and Espresso Bar in Stevensville will shutter its doors until mid-April.

Jayme Bendoski, co-owner of Full Circle Cafe, said they plan to take a break in the hopes of flattening the curve.

“It’s a hard decision. I think everyone has been waiting for something like this,” Bendoski said. “If we’re open, we’re still egging people on to come out. Even if we’re doing curbside service, there is still a way to pass along germs. This is the right thing to do.”

Bendoski said she and her husband contemplated closing last week when restaurants and bars were first restricted from in-house service.

“It gets to the point where you shouldn’t be encouraging people to come buy your food,” she said. “It’s the same thing with the safety of our employees. We want everyone to listen to what they’re being told. We’re a small business, so taking a break wasn’t in our plans for 2020. But lost income does not even come close to the health and safety of the people we love.”

Lazy Ballerina Winery is closing its Bridgman and St. Joseph locations as well.

Melanie Owen, co-owner of the winery, said they’ve been limited in sales since last week. However, there is a silver lining.

“As far as we know, we are still able to do shipping online,”Owen said. “We’re playing it day-by-day until we know something more.”

‘We’re in the light green’

Whispers of the newest executive order began to surface late last week.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the state’s most powerful business lobby, wrote Whitmer a letter Friday opposing such a move and issued a news release Saturday. The Michigan Chamber argued that too broad of an order could unnecessarily damage the economy.

Cornerstone Alliance President Rob Cleveland said his office began to hear chatter about the order early Monday morning. The announcement came at 11 a.m. – 13 hours before it would take effect.

“We didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. However, we’ve been working with our counterparts around the state to see what others are doing,” Cleveland said. “We’re certainly supportive of what the state and federal government is doing. It’s all changing so quickly.”

The economic development agency has taken precautions to assist businesses, which included assembling a task force on March 13.

Cleveland said Cornerstone is focused on helping businesses understand whether they fall under that critical or essential category. As part of their effort, Cornerstone officials have been directing business owners to the federal government’s website that showcases their guidelines.

If there are any further questions, Cleveland said they’ve been recommending attorneys for owners to contact.

“We are certainly not capable of providing any legal guidance as to whether or not they are essential or critical,” Cleveland said. “The fact is there were not a lot of businesses last week that needed assistance right away. We anticipate that number to grow this week and the following weeks. We’ve encouraged businesses to work with their lenders.”

A number of businesses have reached out to Cornerstone Alliance, but Cleveland said Southwest Michigan has not reached the apex of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re in the light green,” Cleveland said. “The retail sector is going to be hit pretty hard over the next few weeks. But we have programs available and encourage those folks to go to our website and fill out a survey. We’ll be there to walk them through the programs.”

If a company meets the definition of essential services or critical lifeline, owners and employees are recommended to document that designation with an official letter of the company’s letterhead.

Businesses must determine which employees are necessary to conduct minimum basic operations, and those that remain operating must adopt social distancing and other mitigation factors.

In a news release Monday, Whitmer said businesses should not play “fast and loose” with the rules being handed down.

Businesses that abuse their designation authority will be subject to sanctions by the state.

Cynthia LaGrow, chief financial officer with Maximum Mold, said they plan to stay open during the next three weeks.

While several manufacturers are reviewing their services, LaGrow said Maximum Mold is covered as an essential service due to its work in the food, medical and agriculture industry.

“We’ve already been contacted by a couple of extremely large manufacturers to work with them on prototype devices with ventilators.” she said.

The Benton Harbor manufacturer produces several products that are used for hospital beds and medical devices.

While Maximum Mold will remain open, company officials are asking employees who are showing symptoms of the coronavirus to stay home.

“I’ve never seen this much panic and uncertainty before. We’re going to get through this just as America always does,” LaGrow said. “The hardships are going to be long-lasting.”

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