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Whitmer: Reopening for Northern Michigan, U.P. includes bars, restaurants

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer laid out plans Monday for the partial reopening of Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula later this week in a go-slow approach that will have restaurants and bars operating at half capacity, among other precautions.

Starting Friday, two regions — which include 17 northern Michigan counties and the entire Upper Peninsula — will be among areas to see relief from some restrictions.

The governor's plan will reopen retail businesses and offices in those regions starting Friday, including bars and restaurants, which will be required to operate at 50% capacity. Those businesses also must train employees on health and safety protocols, keep groups six feet from one another and require workers to wear face coverings. 

"This is a big step, and it’s right before the holiday weekend," Whitmer said at a Monday press briefing. "I want to encourage everyone to stay smart and stay safe. Keep your wits about you. Let’s not all go rushing out and force a closure."

Whitmer's order will still allow local government leaders to take more restrictive stances, such as allowing only for outdoor seating. 

The governor's order also permits small social gatherings of up to 10 people in what are designated as regions 6 and 8, which together comprise 7.5% of state population, according to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.

Region 8, which encompasses all of the Upper Peninsula and 3% of the state's population, has 101 confirmed cases and 15 deaths, roughly 0.2% of the state's overall cases and 0.3% of the state's deaths.

Region 6 includes Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Crawford, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Presque Isle and Emmet counties. The region has had 441 cases and 37 deaths through Monday. 

"The data has shown in these regions of our state that we can phase more sectors into re-engagement of our economy," Whitmer said. "When it comes to new cases per million, percent of positive tests and deaths, these regions are far below the statewide average."

What it means for Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula: 

  • Restaurants and bars can reopen at 50% capacity with six feet between each dining group
  • Retail stores can reopen at 25% capacity but must maintain social distancing 
  • Social gatherings of up to 10 people permitted
  • Retail customers must wear masks; diners must wear masks until they get to their tables
  • Retail, restaurants must train employees on safety protocol, maintain six-foot distancing, provide masks, increase cleaning, notify employees of staff coronavirus cases
  • A restaurant must close and deep clean if an employee shows COVID-19 symptoms
  • Local governments can still make rules stricter than state’s
     

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican, said he welcomed a more "commonsense, regional approach" to managing the impact of COVID-19 in the state. 

“We are cautiously optimistic that the governor may be coming around to what we have known for some time, that our citizens are ready and able to safely resume daily life," Shirkey said in a statement. 

"The Senate Republicans suggested changes weeks ago. We continue to be ready to partner with the governor to improve the process and deliver a smarter plan for Michigan. In the case of Gov. Whitmer, we suppose it’s better late than never."

Added House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, on Twitter: "This is a positive step that we’ve been requesting for over a month now, but the vast majority of Michigan is still held captive in the nation’s worst lockdown. Cases have fallen, our hospitals beds are nowhere near full bed capacity and the curve was flattened weeks ago."

The head of the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance, a group of 16 Northern Michigan chambers, said Whitmer's plan recognizes there is "no one-size-fits-all approach," saying northern Michigan is ready to lead by example.

“Our businesses will take these protocols seriously. Their livelihood is on the line," said Stacie Bytwork, who chairs the alliance.

"We ask that our communities be patient with our businesses and their employees, so that they can resume operations in the quickest way possible."

The alliance had offered in a Thursday letter to the governor to serve as a "test case" for safety guidelines and operating protocol. 

Businesses resuming in-person work are to develop a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan and make it available to employees and customers by June 1, Whitmer said. 

Her easing of restrictions stopped short of opening up overnight lodging, campgrounds and rental properties in the northern regions. Her order also does not permit the reopening of barbers, salons, spas, movie theaters, casinos or gyms at this time. 

"We are not prepared to take additional steps, but we are poised to do that when we believe that the numbers have shown that taking this one hasn't created another spike," she said. 

Whitmer said she might announce more re-engagement later this week ahead of the Memorial Day weekend for other parts of the state.

"If we keep doing what we have been and protecting ourselves and our families from this virus, we can begin thinking about re-engaging sectors in the lower parts of our state," Whitmer said. 

"I will continue to remain flexible, and I will continue to watch the data to work alongside experts here in Michigan and across the country, and I will continue to do everything and limited a chance of a second wave."

Experts and local officials have feared that people traveling from harder-hit regions in southern Michigan to second homes in the northern region would bring the virus with them, overwhelming smaller area hospital systems without the capacity to handle a large influx of patients.

For a time, Whitmer's stay-home order banned travel to second homes in part to address that potential for spread.

"It's pained me this entire time to say, 'No, please don't come to Traverse City right now. We need to figure this out,'" Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers said. 

Carruthers said visitors still shouldn't treat his town like it's summer vacation and "everything's normal." 

"We just welcome you to come, but we want you to be safe," he said. "We're encouraging the 14-day stay-at-home until you know you don't have symptoms."

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 said those fortunate enough to have a place up north should bring their groceries with them and try not to go out unnecessarily.

“You can hit a local restaurant, but only if you're in a small group of people that they are serving, you're able to maintain that distancing,” she said. “And so it's really important that everyone continues to do their part.”

Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said the state has confirmed 51,915 cases of COVID-19 through Monday and 4,915 total deaths, but with "consistent, encouraging trends" in northern Michigan and the UP.

Khaldun said officials are continuing to monitor other areas of the state where case numbers are declining, but they are not ready to move to the next stage of reopening.

"The Detroit Metro region continues to see improvements in the decline in cases, but they still have a relatively high rate at 27 cases per million people per day," Khaldun said. "This area has also seen an increase over the past week in the percent of tests that are positive."

The Grand Rapids area also has seen cases declining over the past two weeks, but it's still at a high case rate of 51 cases per million people a day, Khaldun said. The statewide average is 33 new cases per million a day. 

Yoopers had been hoping the governor would consider proposals for a regional reopening that would allow hospitals to restart elective surgeries, as well as allowing small businesses to reopen in some capacity.

Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, said the U.P. COVID-19 Reopening Committee sent a detailed plan to the governor requesting as much. 

"We spent quite a bit of time in the past few weeks getting a group of stakeholders together … to really put forward a plan to the governor to show that we’re ready at least for a partial reopening," Cambensy said.

The U.P.'s mines and paper mills have continued operating through the pandemic, and Cambensy believes some of the safety protocol employed there could be used in small businesses, as well.

Whitmer has sought federal relief aid to help balance a state budget decimated by the pandemic.

"This is not about politics. This is a fact — that COVID-19 has ravaged our economies, and every state in the nation is confronting this," she said.

"We need flexibility and we need additional resources. The last thing we would want In the midst of a global pandemic is to cut healthcare, to cut public safety or to cut education. These are the things that we're gonna really rely on to get us out of COVID-19."

She hopes Congress acts, and that the Trump administration will support the aid. She then referenced President Donald Trump's anticipated visit to a Ford plant in Ypsilanti later this week, where he's likely to be greeted by GOP lawmakers.

"I'm also hopeful that anyone who gets to spend some time with the president when he's here in Michigan on Thursday will ask for that same kind of support, as well." 

mburke@detroitnews.com