Whitmer bans large gatherings, including at churches and casinos, to fight spread of virus

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday issued an executive order prohibiting all gatherings of more than 250 people, including at religious services and casinos, and temporarily restricted entry into health care and other facilities in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus in Michigan.

Her order, which is effective through April 5, also closed all K-12 schools, an initiative she announced Thursday night.

“This is about protecting the most people we can from the spread of coronavirus,” the governor said in a statement. “My administration will continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread, and to ensure our children, families and businesses have the support they need during this time. We are going to get through this, but we must be flexible and take care of each other.” 

Executive Order 2020-6 signed Friday goes into effect at 9 a.m. Saturday and imposes restrictions on entry to health care sites, residential care facilities, congregate care and juvenile justice facilities that are not necessary for medical care, daily activity support like bathing or eating.

Beginning Monday through April 5, the facilities must assess for Covid-19 symptoms and risk factors for all individuals not under their care who are seeking entry into the facilities.

Another executive order directs state public bodies to consider postponing public meetings when they are able and to offer remote participation in meetings that occur. The order refers to public bodies of departments and agencies, including boards, commissions, committees, subcommittees, authorities and councils.

Bodies subject to the Open Meetings Act that must continue to meet "must do so in a way that ensures adequate notice and access for all participants."

"This could include remote participation by conference call, real-time streaming, or other platforms, so long as public access and participation is preserved," the order states. 

Violation of the orders constitute a misdemeanor. 

Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, criticized the order as a violation of the First Amendment right to assemble and free exercise of religion, a violation that amounted to throwing constitutional rights "out the window."

“I will always be the first person to agree with Gov. Whitmer that the state should take pro-active, sound measures to prevent the spread of any illness," he said. "However, we must take action that is not in violation of the Constitution."

But Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey in a statement said the measures taken Friday were "severe," but "appropriate." . 

"We have met with the governor and her team and have experienced first-hand the thoughtful, measured, and data-driven process being used to arrive at these decisions," said Shirkey, R-Clarklake. "Closing schools is not an easy decision, but we agree that it is a step toward helping to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the media about the state's steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus at a Friday press conference at the Michigan Emergency Operations Center in Dimondale.

Shared spaces include rooms, theaters, auditoriums, cafeterias, or galleries. Churches are not exempt from the ban, but staggered services could help institutions to comply with the order, Whitmer's spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

The order appears to include casinos, restaurants and hotels.

The order does not apply to Michigan's tribal casinos, but they intend to take steps to limit risks such as closing buffet service and limiting card games, said Bryan Newland, president of the Bay Mills Indian Community, which runs the Bay Mills Resort and Casino and the Kings Club Casino.

Not wanting to "put money over individual health," the casinos also are discouraging anyone over the age of 60 or any medically vulnerable individuals from visiting, Newland said. 

"We are in a bind because these casinos provide the revenues our government uses for government activities — like public health and safety," Newland said in a message to The Detroit News.

The Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity has indicated the order would affect restaurants and conferences or gatherings at hotels, said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association. Restaurants and hotels are expected to self-regulate by turning people away when they reach the 250-person capacity or put them in a separate area. 

"If you are getting married this weekend and expecting a lot of family, I don’t know what to tell you," Winslow said. 

Business at restaurants has dipped or remained relatively flat since the coronavirus emerged, he said, but reservations at hotels have "fallen off the map." Help for those industries in the form of capital or liquidity is sorely needed, he said. 

"We can blunt the impact economically if we can act quickly," Winslow said. 

Exemptions to the order include grocery and other consumer goods stores, mass transit and manufacturing or industrial locations.

Child care facilities, whether attached to a school or separate, will remain open. 

The ban, according to the executive order, “does not abridge protections guaranteed by the state or federal constitution under these emergency circumstances.”

Whitmer’s declaration of a state of emergency Tuesday gives her “broad powers and duties” to issue the mandates to “protect life and property or to bring the emergency situation within the affected area under control,” according to the governor’s executive order.

The prohibition comes the same day the number of presumptive positive coronavirus cases in Michigan increased to 16.