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Whitmer orders indoor bars closed in most of lower Michigan, including Detroit area

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is ordering the closure of all indoor bars as well as most strip and night clubs through much of lower Michigan to fight the spread of the coronavirus. 

Bars can continue to serve outdoors, Whitmer said Wednesday, and the governor recently signed a package of bills allowing for cocktails-to-go and "social districts" where customers from different establishments can eat and drink their purchases in an outdoor common area. The governor's order goes into effect at 11 p.m. Wednesday.

Whitmer is making a distinction between restaurants and bars by applying her order to all facilities with on-premise retailer liquor licenses that earn more than 70% of their money from alcohol sales. Most brewpubs, vineyards and distilleries will not fall into that category, Whitmer said, but night clubs, strip clubs and traditional bars will. 

The governor's edict excludes Regions 6 and 8, located in Northwest Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, where cases and deaths have remained low.

The decision comes after spikes in COVID-19 cases in the Grand Rapids, Lansing and Kalamazoo regions, and as nearly 25% of the newly confirmed COVID-19 cases in June statewide occurred among individuals between the ages of 20 and 29. 

In May, that age group comprised 16% of new cases. 

“Following recent outbreaks tied to bars, I am taking this action today to slow the spread of the virus and keep people safe," Whitmer said. "If we want to be in a strong position to reopen schools for in-person classroom instruction this fall, then we need to take aggressive action right now to ensure we don’t wipe out all the progress we have made.” 

In East Lansing, 138 cases have been linked to a single bar, Harper's, and have led to people spreading the virus to other areas of the state. Similar anecdotes can be found in Louisiana, Texas and Florida, Whitmer said. 

Spurring the spread in bars are crowded conditions, poor ventilation and noisy atmospheres requiring people to raise their voices and spread viral droplets, Whitmer said. 

"Bars will not have to close down completely, but may still offer outdoor seating and use creative methods like cocktails-to-go in hopes that we can bring our numbers down,” she said in a statement. 

Whitmer's order specifically closes dance and topless activities by suspending their permits, but otherwise limits the closure to all facilities with on-premise retailer liquor licenses with more than 70% of their gross receipts coming from alcohol sales.

Bars and restaurants with less than 70% alcohol sales are allowed to remain open but must require face coverings until a person is seated at a table, require people mostly to stay seated, only sell alcoholic beverages to seated customers and prohibit access to areas where people "congregate dance or otherwise mingle."

An exception is made for customers not seated at a table, but planning to drink off-site, either in a common area or after purchasing a to-go cocktail, according to the order.

"Common areas where people stand and congregate" in restaurants must close, capacity must remain at 50% and outdoor seating associated with bars or restaurants must include socially distanced tables, Whitmer wrote in her order. 

The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association said Whitmer's order is essentially "a stay of execution" for restaurants, given the more sweeping closures mandated in other states.

"The vast majority of operators are honest brokers doing the very best they can to keep people safe, happy and nourished," said Justin Winslow, CEO for the restaurant association. "This order is just the latest reminder that if we want to retain the things we love — like a great meal with friends and family — we all must bear greater responsibility for our collective safety or grieve its absence." 

Whitmer's decision “has effectively hurt every local small-town bar in the state — establishments that aren’t the bad actors,” said Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, in a statement Wednesday.

“Instead of focusing on problem bars or problem areas, she’s going to kill businesses that are abiding by all of the rules and still struggling to survive. It seems like 70 was chosen as an arbitrary percentage that holds no validity in terms of safety.”

Association officials also believe many businesses would have to close.

“People who were eager to travel and visit their favorite local bars during the Fourth of July holiday just had their plans completely derailed,” Ellis said. “We understand the importance of safety during these unprecedented times, but it now seems that following the rules precisely isn’t enough, but selling food is.”

As word spread Wednesday, some bars and nightspots in the region were trying to figure out how to address the order.

Staff at Nightcap in Ann Arbor planned to have a meeting by Thursday while keeping their patio open and starting cocktails-to-go as an option, a worker said. "That’s going to be our primary focus from here on out."

At the Sugar Bar, touted on its website as "Detroit’s original craft cocktail bar," workers learned the news shortly before opening Wednesday, which meant they had to close their doors by 11 p.m., general manager Jonathan Tipton said.

"We had to reach out to everybody who had reservations this weekend and reach out to everybody who reserved in the future," he said. "It’s been a little bit of a scramble."

The staff, which had just became accustomed to reopening, likely will discuss plans for online orders or other options next week, Tipton said.

"We’re trying to do whatever we can to keep the business alive but maintain safety," he said. "It's been a struggle, but we're trying to keep our head up."

Danny's Irish Pub in Ferndale also is working to comply with the order, exploring ways to serve outside while maintaining safe distances between customers, owner Dan Reedy said.

Staffers are also holding fast to a policy of rejecting visitors who refuse to wear masks, he added. "We want people to come and have a good time but we want them to recognize they have to be socially responsible."

The governor made her decision as Michigan reported on Wednesday five coronavirus deaths and confirmed 262 new cases of COVID-19. 

New infections in Michigan are on the rise after weeks of decline, but hospitals overall are not reporting an increase in COVID-19 patients. In another good sign, the percentage of those testing positive for the virus is flat at about 2.5%. 

The average number of new cases for the past seven days is up to 311 a day from an average of 223 a day for the previous seven-day period, according to state data. In addition to the 262 cases confirmed Wednesday, the state reported 99 probable cases.

In recent days, the regions of Grand Rapids, Lansing and Kalamazoo have exceeded 20 new cases per million people, a benchmark used to identify a concerning increase in the rate of regional growth.

Due to the uptick in cases, Whitmer has been considering reimposing some restrictions in certain regions of the state.

During a Tuesday press conference, the governor said that lower Michigan would not move forward from Phase 4 of reopening to Phase 5 before July 4, though she expressed hope last month for as much.

Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula already progressed to Phase 5, which has allowed the reopening of limited-capacity indoor movie theaters and gyms subject to safety procedures designed to minimize the spread of the virus. 

"A lot of states in the country are watching cases grow exponentially and worrying that their ICUs are filling up," Whitmer said during the Tuesday press briefing, referring to intensive care units.

"We are not in that position, but our numbers are not as strong today as they were a couple of weeks ago."

A larger proportion of positive cases in May and June are coming from ages 15-29, compared with prior months. That could help explain why hospitalization rates statewide were falling or flat during June, since younger age groups have lower rates of hospitalization than older groups, health officials say.

The 250-bed field hospital set up inside the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi is no longer seeing patients after the last patient was discharged June 11, a state spokeswoman said.

Hospitalizations statewide fell again this week, with 325 inpatients with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, including 193 in critical care and 103 on ventilators.That's compared with 346 inpatients a week ago, including 195 in critical care and 115 on ventilators. 

The state on Friday "paused" the 250-bed regional field hospital built at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, similar to the wind-down of the 1,000-bed field hospital at the TCF Center in Detroit in May.

The last patient was discharged June 11 from the Suburban Collection medical facility, which treated 16 patients total, said Michelle Grinnell, spokeswoman for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

"As was the case with TCF Regional Care Center, this is a pause versus a closure, with SCS Regional Care Center standing ready to receive patients again if the need arises throughout the state," Grinnell said. 

The TCF Regional Care Center opened April 10 amid the rapid growth of COVID cases in Detroit and treated a total 39 patients before going into "pause" status in early May.

To date, the state has tallied 71,089 known cases of COVID-19, including 6,957 probable cases, since the disease was first detected in Michigan in March. 

Michigan's death toll from the disease now stands at 6,198, including 247 probable deaths.

Wednesday's five new deaths included one probable death — an individual who didn't test positive for the virus but whose death certificate listed COVID as a cause of death.

The uptick in recent cases is in part due to outbreaks at farms and factories in some parts of the state, including Oceana, Newaygo, Branch and Lapeer counties. 

The Detroit, Kalamazoo, Saginaw and Jackson regions also are seeing spikes, but the rates are below 20 new positive cases per 1 million people.

Michigan ranks No. 11 among states for the most cases of COVID and sixth for deaths, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University. 

mburke@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed