Northern Michigan avoids COVID-19 spikes since reopening

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

The first two regions of Michigan to see loosened restrictions on restaurants, stores and offices so far have avoided spikes in new COVID-19 cases more than three weeks after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed the reopening, according to state data.

Northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, two tourism draws where many businesses were able to restart some operations on May 22, are still experiencing far fewer per-capita cases of the virus than the six other economic recovery regions established by the Whitmer administration.

Nick Marco, 26, talks with the media and customers outside Brady's Bar in downtown Traverse City moments before they opened the doors for business at 12:01 a.m. May 22 for the first time since mid-March.

Their percentage rates of increase in new cases since May 22 — a comparison of new cases to previously confirmed cases — are also lower than other regions of the state. The 15-county Upper Peninsula region, which has had the fewest cases overall, ranks third among the eight regions while the 17-county Northern Lower Michigan region ranks fifth, according to a Detroit News analysis.

“At this point, we have not seen any big increases," said Dr. Joshua Meyerson, medical director for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, which serves four counties in the Northern Lower Michigan region. But he cautioned, "sometimes, it can take longer to see the effects of opening up.”

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.

As of Monday, the Northern Lower Michigan region had added 44 new confirmed cases since May 21, the day before the reopening began, according to state Department of Health and Human Services tracking. The region, which includes Traverse City, had 491 cases overall as of Monday.

The 15-county Upper Peninsula region has added 24 cases, putting its total at 128 cases on Monday, according to the state's tracking.

"We continue to monitor cases, deaths, testing and syndromic data," said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. "We have not identified any increases in these regions from these data systems."

The sun sets behind the Mackinac Bridge.

The numbers contrast with those in some other states, such as Texas, Florida and Arizona, where governors loosened economic restrictions and are now seeing increases in new cases of the novel coronavirus.

Texas saw surges last week in hospitalizations and new COVID-19 cases, according to the Associated Press. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott allowed retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls to begin reopening with limited capacity on May 1, weeks before Michigan took similar steps.

Michigan once ranked third nationally for the number of COVID-19 cases. Now, it ranks ninth behind some states, such as Texas and Florida, that implemented fewer restrictions to stem the spread the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University.

COVID spikes avoided for now

Michigan may have been able to prevent spikes in northern regions here because it waited long enough to flatten the transmission of the disease before reopening sectors of the economy, Meyerson said.

"Some states may have opened up at a time when they still had significant community transmission that they weren’t able to follow up with contact tracing,” he said.

But, Meyerson acknowledged, there could be other factors as well. The two areas of Michigan to see the first eased restrictions on restaurants and bars were both largely rural with few cases of the virus before the reopenings occurred.

Sherry Oyer, right, enjoys a day on the beach at Bryant Park with her granddaughter Marilyn Oyer on Friday, May 22, 2020. Living in Traverse City, the two practiced social distancing from a few other beach goers and relaxed along the shore of Grand Traverse Bay.

Whitmer first announced the closure of dine-in service at restaurants and bars in Michigan on March 16 — six days after the state confirmed its first COVID-19 cases.

On May 22, the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, the governor allowed restaurants and bars in Northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula to reopen with limited capacity of 50% of their normal seating. They also had to keep groups at least six feet from one another and require their servers to wear face coverings.

Whitmer implemented a similar policy for the rest of the state on June 8.

However, according to health experts, it could take a few weeks to see the full effects of the changes. Epidemiologists have encouraged the governor to wait two to four weeks between major moves to loosen restrictions because the virus can have a two-week incubation period, the period before a person who becomes infected begins to show symptoms.

Wendy Hirschenberger, an epidemiologist and the health officer for Grand Traverse County Health Department, said it's "too soon to tell" if her county will experience spikes in new cases after many businesses were allowed to reopen on May 22.

Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers joins  Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a press conference where  she announced an order allowing for the reopening, in two regions, of retail businesses, office work that cannot be done remotely, and restaurants and bars with limited seating in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Michigan, including Traverse City.

Grand Traverse County — which includes Traverse City, a popular summer vacation destination — is the most populated county in the two regions that were initially allowed to reopen.

Hirschenberger said the county has experienced a steady amount of new cases in recent weeks. Grand Traverse County went from 23 confirmed cases on May 21 to 35 new cases cases on Monday, according to state data.

But there have also been a handful of people recently — five to 10 — who tested positive for COVID-19 in Grand Traverse County but reside outside of Michigan, Hirschenberger added. Those individuals haven't been included in the state data for the county, she said.

“We’re keeping a close eye on it just because we have so many people who travel here from all over," Hirschenberger said.

Workers in Michigan's hospitality industry who who have faced financial hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic will again have the opportunity to apply for a one-time assistance payment of up to $500 beginning this week.

'Anxiously holding our breath'

There are challenges ahead for everyone, she said, because states have gone from clear stay-at-home orders to a "gray zone" where some things are allowed and some things aren't.

The streets of Traverse City are "bustling" again, Mayor Jim Carruthers said, and officials are watching the increases in new cases in other states.

“We’re all sort of anxiously holding our breath on all of this,” Carruthers said.

The mayor, who appeared at the press conference where Whitmer announced the reopening of businesses in Northern Michigan, said he personally hasn't dined yet in at a restaurant in his city. Carruthers said his father, who's in his 80s, is coming to visit for the summer and he wants to make sure things are safe.

Carruthers encouraged people in Traverse City to be "very careful." Hirschenberger recommended that people continue to wear masks.

"We still want people to enjoy themselves, but be mindful that there is still a virus that is spreading," Carruthers said. 

The economic development group InvestUP released this fact sheet on COVID-19 in the Upper Peninsula.

Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP, an economic development organization in the Upper Peninsula, was among those who encouraged Whitmer in May to lift restrictions on businesses in the northern portions of the state where there were few cases. His organization is now sharing fact sheets about COVID-19 in the region.

"Three weeks after the initial reopening of the Upper Peninsula and with an increase in visitor traffic that started with the Memorial Day holiday, the U.P. continues to see a decline in the average daily infection rate thanks to our natural environment, as well as the committed safety protocols in place to move the Upper Peninsula economy forward while keeping everyone safe," the sheet says.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, 54,000 vehicles crossed the Mackinac Bridge, which connects the upper and lower peninsulas, and another 61,000 vehicles crossed the next two weekends, according to InvestUP.

While COVID-19 is still part of the day-to-day conversations in the Upper Peninsula, Fittante said, everything he's hearing is consistent with the data showing no spikes in new cases.

“The virtue of the reopening is there’s hope," Fittante said Tuesday. "There’s still concern and there are certainly challenges ahead of us, but there’s reason for hope."

In this March 18, 2020, photo, a tongue-in-cheek message is displayed on the marquee of the State Theatre in Traverse City.