In rural Michigan, residents press for regional reopening plan

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan's rural Upper Peninsula has a minuscule number of coronavirus cases compared with the state’s most populated county of Wayne, a disparity that is generating dissension in some areas about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive orders.

In Wayne County, there’s about one confirmed COVID-19 case for each 100 residents, while there are 0.03 cases for each 100 residents in the U.P. Still, the same stay-at-home order and business restrictions cover the two areas 62 days into Michigan’s fight to combat COVID-19.

"I can’t tell you anybody that I know of in business who supports the current lockdown," said Steven Zurcher, 55, a lifelong resident of the Upper Peninsula who owns St. George Glass & Window in Iron Mountain.

Residents of rural Michigan, where there’s a small fraction of the COVID-19 cases found in Metro Detroit, are increasingly calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to allow the economies in their areas to reopen amid fears of long-term statewide economic damage.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's Michigan Economic Recovery Council detailed these potential regions for making decisions on reopening the state's economy on Monday, April 27, 2020.

Whitmer's administration has stuck with statewide restrictions, citing increasing coronavirus cases in areas of West Michigan, the lack of hospital capacity in other rural areas and the potential for a deadly second wave. The way residents move around the state also makes regional restrictions complicated to implement, health experts say.

But if the governor doesn’t allow openings to begin in the next few weeks, rural business owners said the economic implications will be devastating.

"We’re small economic engines and a lot of businesses don’t have the population base that can rebound quickly, like you can in urban areas," Zurcher said.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Tuesday a plan to reopen his state through five phases and four geographic regions. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s reopening plan requires three counties in his state to see delays compared with others.

On Thursday, Whitmer extended the state’s stay-at-home order through May 28 and unveiled a six-phase plan for reopening Michigan’s economy. The plan said the state will "examine whether different regions within Michigan may be at different phases."

"As we look to the next phases, there certainly could be regional differences," Whitmer said during a press conference.

"Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd asked Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, why she wasn’t comfortable loosening restrictions on rural areas during an interview last week.

"We are still seeing, for example, on the western side of the state that there are increases in the rate of rise of cases. We have several outbreaks there," Khaldun said. "We also know ... in some of our rural areas the number of hospital beds is actually not what it should be. Many of our hospitals in our rural areas are actually at capacity."

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speak during a press conference on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Lansing. The two state officials were updating the public on the Michigan's response to COVID-19.

Regional variations, complications

Whitmer’s administration has voiced concerns that it would take a smaller uptick in cases in rural Michigan to overwhelm hospitals than it would in southeast Michigan, where there are more hospital beds available.

Asked about that this week, Ruthanne Sudderth, spokeswoman for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, said COVID-19 surges are hitting hospitals and areas of the state at different times. That fact complicates reopening plans.

The state has to find the right balance between staying safe and beginning to lift restrictions, said Dr. Christine Nefcy, chief medical officer at Munson Healthcare, which has nine hospitals in northern Michigan.

To do a regional reopening in Michigan, officials would "have to take into consideration the idea that our population really shifts in the summertime," when people travel to their second homes or for tourism, Nefcy said.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean of public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it could make sense to have different restrictions for different areas within a state but it would have to be done thoughtfully.

"You can’t just look at the number of cases and go, ‘Boom, we’re going to make a different decision,’" Sharfstein said. "Places that have few cases may also have very few hospitals. You really have to look at the whole picture in each area."

Whitmer’s Michigan Economic Recovery Council, a group of business, health and labor leaders that’s advising her on reopening the economy, has proposed a map of eight regions to help make decisions.

The regions were divided based on labor sheds — how people travel to work and then back home again — the status of the epidemic and the geography of health care systems — which hospitals systems serve which areas, said Gerry Anderson, who co-chaired the recovery council and is executive chairman of DTE Energy.

"It turns out that geography is really important," Anderson said. "This disease and how it presents varies across the state."

The most populated proposed region was the "Detroit Region," which featured a majority of the state’s population and nine counties. A Detroit News analysis found that more than three-quarters or 77% of Michigan’s COVID-19 cases are in the proposed "Detroit Region": Genesee, Lapeer, Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

Combined, there’s one confirmed COVID-19 case for each 146 people in the proposed region.

In the Upper Peninsula — its own proposed region — there are 96 total cases, which translates to one confirmed COVID-19 case for each 3,136 residents. In the "Traverse City Region" there’s one confirmed case for each 1,035 residents.

Still, two counties in the "Traverse City Region" are among the top 10 in Michigan for per-capita coronavirus cases: Crawford and Otsego.

Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP, an economic development group focused on the Upper Peninsula, said his organization was grateful when the governor’s team began publicly discussing a regional reopening plan. But he noted that an official decision hadn’t been announced yet.

"The longer we go without any definitive answer, the more anxious people get," Fittante said.

Businesses in the Upper Peninsula tend to run on thinner profit margins than those in other areas of the state, he said. Many rely on tourism season, which usually runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

"We’re really worried about what the rebound looks like if we miss this start," Fittante said of the upcoming tourism season. "At the end of the day, if you miss this season, you’ve lost a year."

"For Sale By Owner" and "Closed Due to Virus" signs are displayed in the window of Images On Mack in Grosse Pointe Woods, Thursday, April 2, 2020.

Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, the lone Democratic state lawmaker from the Upper Peninsula, said she was helping constituents with problems filing unemployment claims Tuesday when she paused for an interview.

The U.P. economy needs to start reopening in some capacity in the next couple weeks, Cambensy said.

"I think we feel pretty confident that we can reopen our economy up here with our residents and with the cases we have right now," she said.

"Are we ready for outsiders to come in?" Cambensy asked. "It’s not that we don’t want them. It’s just that we don’t have the testing capacity yet."

Upper Peninsula residents aren't the only ones hoping for a regional reopening plan to be officially implemented soon.

How bad is west Michigan?

Former House Speaker Jase Bolger, a Republican from west Michigan, noted Tuesday that the case rates in many areas of Michigan are lower than the overall rates in Indiana and Ohio, two states that have already begun reopening their economies.

Bolger pointed to a comment last Monday by Dr. Adam London, director of the Kent County Health Department, who said hospitalizations in the county had been steady.

"We must protect both health and security," Bolger said. "We can do so carefully. We can open Michigan safely."

Whitmer, a Democrat, issued her initial stay-at-home order on March 23, which effectively shuttered nonessential businesses. She has begun rolling back restrictions on low-risk businesses, such as landscaping. On Thursday, real estate businesses and construction firms were able to return to work.

Whitmer has said her decisions on reopening the state’s economy would be guided by data and will come "gradually."

Michigan had more than 47,100 confirmed COVID-19 cases through Sunday.

"We will monitor public health, and we will measure our success every step of the way," Whitmer said of her plans recently. "We’ll also remain nimble enough to pull back when the data tells us that’s the prudent thing to do.”

But Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley cautioned that if some businesses can’t reopen soon, "they’ll never reopen."

Zurcher said his U.P. glass and window business, which was deemed essential and allowed to continue operating during the emergency declaration, has held steady. He rejected arguments that economic concerns don’t matter during a public health crisis.

"It’s the glue that holds communities together," he countered. "Commerce holds communities together."