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Bars and restaurants respond to contact tracing order

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is requiring bars and restaurants to gather phone numbers from customers to support contact tracing

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — Bars and restaurants were served with more COVID-19 restrictions this week, which include limiting six people or less to a seated table and requiring businesses to collect phone numbers from customers to support contact tracing.

Tami VandenBerg, owner of The Pyramid Scheme in downtown Grand Rapids said 2020 has been a "rollercoaster" so far, when it comes to keeping up with safety demands.

"To keep up on what we should be doing, what the government is telling us what to do, what public health officials are telling us to do, what our staff is comfortable with, what our customers are comfortable with, it’s been quite the balancing act," she explained.

Despite keeping up with all the changes, she said the newest order to gather phone numbers from customers is one that may cause controversy.

"We will do it. We think it's the right thing to do, but particularly gathering people's information that one kind of seems like we'll probably get the most push back," VandenBerg said.

Some customers have already made their distaste for restaurants supporting the order known on social media. 

Credit: FACEBOOK

In a statement Justin Winslow, President and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, said the contact tracing mandate on bars and restaurants lacks merit, adding that while "well-intended," it could result in job loss and foreclosures.

"The COVID-19 outbreak investigation data collected by the MDHHS continues to show minimal transmission from restaurant dining, despite the rising caseloads, representing only about 2% of all cases the state is investigating.  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," the statement read.

While there have been claims on social media that the mandate is an invasion of privacy, Anthony Tangorra, owner of Mertens Prime in downtown Grand Rapids, said the system of collecting information holds little difference to the way customers can make reservations at his restaurants using the Open Table app.

"At the very least this provides a spotlight into the issue of data protections and businesses overall. That's true, but the fact of the matter is it's always been there. We've had a reservation system Open Table or Resy since we opened in 2017. 80,90% of our guests have always volunteered that information when dining with us," Tangorra explained, noting that the methods his business uses are proven and secure.

Kent County Health Department said it's contact tracing resources have been stretched thin amid the rising COVID-19 case numbers. When asked if the department felt it could keep up with the addition of contacts likely to come in under the new mandate, Epidemiology Supervisor Brian Hartl said the department would use the contacts when needed on a case-by-case basis.

"If there’s a situation where we definitely need to gather patron information from a bar or restaurant, then we're going to utilize that. Right now it’s just new to us, so we’re going to try to figure out how best to utilize that with the resources we have," he said.

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Amid uncertainty in the service industry, both Tangorra and VandenBerg said expressed a need for customers in their doors.

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"This is the order. We have to follow this. We could lose our liquor license. So we’re not going to not do this," VandenBerg said about the contact tracing, "Think about what you want to still be here once we get out of this pandemic and spend your money there."

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