The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) is demanding restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and other public places collect the names and contact information of their customers and report them to the government upon demand.
The orders, in effect starting October 29, also limit all nonresidential indoor gatherings without fixed seating to 50 people and restrict individual table sizes at bars and restaurants to six people.
The order requires restaurants, schools, and other businesses to provide local health officials with “accurate records of the names and phone numbers… and the date and time of entry” of individuals with possible COVID-19 exposure. Failure to do so could be considered a misdemeanor with possible jail time or a civil fine of up to $1,000. The state has set up a hotline to report complaints.
Michigan restaurants are considering a plan to defy Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s three-week ban on indoor dining which started on November 18. The Detroit Free Press reported November 30 it had viewed the letter and confirmed Detroit-based restauranteurs Joe and Rosalie Vicari were behind the letter.
“Our industry cannot survive another extended closure,” stated the letter. “Thousands of restaurants and tens of thousands of our employees cannot survive it either. We need to band together and FIGHT BACK but we need to do this as a United Group of Michigan Restaurant Owners.”
The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop the ban. On November 20, the court denied the group’s request for a temporary restraining order.
Questioning the Need
The new measures inaccurately single out restaurants as “super-spreaders,” say the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association (MRLA) and other opponents of the requirement. Contact tracing mandates are not supported by science or data, the MRLA states.
“The COVID-19 outbreak investigation data collected by the MDHHS continues to show minimal transmission from restaurant dining,” MRLA CEO Justin Winslow said in a statement. “In relation to the size and scope of the industry, which serves millions of people every day and employs several hundred thousand more, this well-intended effort is more likely to result in job loss, foreclosure, and fewer restaurants than it will prevent transmission.”
As of November 2, Michigan reported a total of 590 outbreaks since it began reporting the data in August. Twenty-seven of those outbreaks (4.6 percent) were associated with bars and restaurants.
In May, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington rescinded a mandate requiring the state’s restaurants to collect customer contact information, after much uproar over the order, including a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU stated the data gathering was a risk “to people’s fundamental rights to privacy and association.”
Contact tracing orders allow public health workers to monitor, track, and tag any individual who tests positive for COVID-19 and anyone with whom they could have been in contact.
“This is a violation of the individual’s freedom from government surveillance,” said Twila Brase, president and, cofounder of the Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which co-publishes Health Care News.
“It’s the collection of information on people for no reason other than that they are dining at a restaurant,” said Brase. “That makes it a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. There’s no search warrant or probable cause.”
Numerous False Positives
The effectiveness of contact tracing relies heavily on the accuracy of the data. The New York Times reported on August 29 up to 90 percent of the positive cases identified by PCR testing in Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York are false results.
Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the federal government’s leading epidemiologists, recently stated the tests do not always identify a live, infectious virus but instead find related proteins (see related article, page 8).
False-positive test results from broad-based testing are the rule, not the exception, says Erwin Haas, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute told Health Care News, on August 17.
“Given that the PCR testing is being done incorrectly in many states, it’s hard to know how many of the positive tests are actually positive,” said Brase. “But the ramifications of being declared ‘positive’ and the subsequent potential ramifications to all your personal contacts could be significant.”
Tightening the Screws
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on October 21 changed its definition of close contact to a cumulative 15 minutes within six feet of an infected person during a 24 hour period.
“Many people could end up in quarantine and they’re not even contagious or infected,” said Brase.
Contact tracing efforts are increasing in scope and practice nationwide. In Washington, D.C., people who test positive for the COVID-19 virus are now approached at their homes. Minnesota is requiring restaurants and bars to collect customer contact information.
More and more states are following the approach of Michigan in demanding private businesses collect people’s names. The National Academy for State Health Policy provides an up-to-date list of contact tracing mandates.
Many Michigan restaurants have decided to shut down their dining areas in response to the new order. The D & W grocery chain has blocked off dining areas in its stores. Other restaurants, coping with losses from lockdowns earlier in the year, are complying despite their misgivings.
“We’re not excited about this new rule coming through without much warning or guidance, but we’re going to comply as best we can,” Jeff Lobdell, president of Restaurant Partners Management, told WOOD-TV on November 2.Lobdell says his company had to institute a QR Code system to collect the information.
On October 2, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown orders are unconstitutional, but the state has kept the rules in place by using the authority granted in Michigan’s public health code (see related article, page 12).
MRLA estimates 4,000 restaurants, or 22 percent of those in the state, won’t survive past February of 2021.
This article was updated on December 2, 2020.
Ashley Bateman (email@example.com) writes from Alexandria, Virginia. Richard Larkin McLay (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from Minneapolis, Minnesota.