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Whitmer to reimpose limits in northern Michigan, reopen Detroit casinos

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is pulling back the reins in Michigan's northern regions that have enjoyed looser COVID-19 restrictions but also allowing for the reopening of Detroit's three casinos.

Whitmer issued an executive order Wednesday night that reimposes restrictions starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday for Regions 6 and 8 — which include the Upper Peninsula and 17 counties in northern Michigan — that cap indoor gatherings at 10 people and close indoor bars where alcohol accounts for 70% of sales. Outdoor gatherings in Regions 6 and 8 remain limited to 250 people.

But Whitmer, in a separate order Wednesday, allowed for Detroit's casinos to reopen at 15% capacity Aug. 5.

"After seeing a resurgence in cases connected to social gatherings across the state, we must further limit gatherings for the health of our community and economy," Whitmer said. "By taking these strong actions, we will be better positioned to get our children back into classrooms and avoid a potentially devastating second wave.”   

The governor cited recent "super-spreading" events as a reason for the new restrictions, referring in particular to at least 43 cases linked to a July 4 sandbar party on Torch Lake. She also noted the state's cases had risen to a seven-day rolling average of 692 cases a day on July 28, twice the average of the 354 cases a day reported on June 30.

The new restrictions in Region 6 and 8 largely bring them in line with the rest of the state.

The orders restricting activity in northern Michigan and reopening downstate casinos are her 160th and 161st executive orders since the pandemic began. 

But the stricter order issued Wednesday still allows for the continued opening of gyms and fitness centers, amusement parks and skating rinks in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. 

The order also permits the continued operation of indoor arcades, movie theaters, sports arenas or bowling alleys so long as people can maintain 6 feet of distance. Capacity remains capped at 25% or 250 people. 

The announcement was a point of frustration for Upper Peninsula Sen. Ed McBroom, who argued that while cases have been increasing in the region, hospitalizations and deaths have remained low. 

As the order rolled out Wednesday night, the Vulcan Republican began getting calls from constituents whose open houses and plans dissolved with the order. 

"I would very much like to know which specific data the governor is using to back up this decision," McBroom said. "I always want to believe she has some critical data, but she hasn’t shared it with us.”

Region 8 is labeled as medium-high risk for the spread of the virus similar to regions 1-5 and 7, while Region 6 is the only area considered medium risk, according to the MI Safe Start Map. 

Regions considered medium-high risk have a rate of 20-40 new cases per 1 million people per day. Medium risk regions have 7-20 cases per one million people per day.

Region 8, the Upper Peninsula, had zero COVID-19 related hospitalizations as of Tuesday, according to state data. 

Michigan's overall COVID-19 case tally surpassed 80,000 known cases Wednesday, reaching 80,172 cases and a death count of 6,172, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. When probable cases are added, the total is 88,974 cases and 6,422 deaths.

Meanwhile, the order reopening Detroit's three casinos — which have been closed since March 16 — requires customers and employees to wear face coverings, except when eating or drinking, and bans smoking within the casino. Everyone entering the casino will be subject to health screenings, including a temperature check.

The casino must provide disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer; clean and disinfect all high-touch objects, including slot machines; and space machines 6 feet apart or install Plexiglass between each machine. 

The order bans casinos from providing self-serve buffets or offer concerts, live events, night clubs, valet service or coat check. 

"Casinos have been operating safely across most of the country and in tribal areas in Michigan and should be able to do so in the Detroit region as well," Whitmer wrote in her order.

In addition to complying with the rules listed in the executive order, MotorCity plans to shut down every other slot machine, remove seating at game tables, and frequently clean and disinfect, said Bruce Dall, president for MotorCity Casino Hotel. The casino spent "considerable time" in developing safety protocol for the facility, he said.

"This decision allows us to bring back many employees, providing critical employment and health benefits," Dall said. "We look forward to safely welcoming our staff and guests back to MotorCity Casino.”

In late May, four of the state's 12 federally recognized tribes said they planned to reopen their casinos. The casinos of Native American tribes are regulated by tribal gaming commissions and federal law.

During the outbreak, Detroit has suffered major losses in some of its top funding sources, including gaming and income tax revenues and state revenue-sharing dollars. The closure of Detroit casinos alone, Mayor Mike Duggan has said, is costing the city about $600,000 in revenue per day.

Casino revenue through the end of June for MGM Grand, MotorCity and Greektown totaled $299.2 million, down 59.3% from the $735.4 million recorded for the first half of 2019.

MGM Grand is down 40% year-to-date compared with 2019 revenue, while MotorCity's revenue has declined 41% and Greektown's 41%. 

The casinos yielded $35.6 million in wagering taxes collected by the city through the first half of the year compared with the $87.5 million generated for the same period in the first six months of 2019. That tax revenue is shared by the state and the city.