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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's decision to tighten restrictions on two rural regions of Michigan is intensifying a high-stakes debate over how to respond to the clashing trends of increasing cases but dwindling deaths.

The disagreement could have repercussions across the state as rates of new cases continue to climb — with spikes in several counties — while deaths and hospitalizations linked to the virus remain relatively low. The 17 northern Michigan counties and Upper Peninsula where Whitmer reimposed limits on gatherings and shut bars have had only two confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the last two weeks.

"It really begs the bigger question: What comes next?" said Marty Fittante, who leads Invest UP, a group that represents Upper Peninsula businesses. "What further restriction might come next based on the data they’re looking at?"

Despite the low death and hospitalization counts, certain counties in the Upper Peninsula are "on fire" with COVID-19, cautioned Dr. Robert Van Howe, interim medical director for Western U.P. Health Department.

"We’re working hard to get people to wear their masks. We need to take this even more seriously than we did in April and May," Van Howe said. "It wasn’t here then. It’s here now."

On Wednesday night, the governor reimposed a 10-person limit on household gatherings and a ban on service at bars that get at least 70% of their revenue from alcohol in northern lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. The move effectively put those two regions, which had advanced to another phase of reopening, under similar restrictions as the rest of the state.

Bars in the two northern regions have been open since May 22. A 50-person limit on indoor social gatherings had been in place there since June 10.

During the last two weeks, the two regions — known as Regions 6 and 8 — have reported fewer new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents than the state's other six economic recovery regions, which have been under tighter restrictions, according to a Detroit News analysis of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services data.

While the Upper Peninsula is still reporting fewer new cases per capita than most other regions of the state, its overall case total has shot up in recent weeks.

In a statement on her Wednesday order, Whitmer said Michigan residents can't "afford to drop our guard" as cases rise. The governor has been pushing to stop increasing rates of new cases as schools prepare to open at the end of August.

The state has noted increases in cases related to travel in Regions 6 and 8 and reports of community spread there since early July, said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

"In an effort to reduce further spread of COVID-19 in our state, these additional restrictions were put into place," Sutfin said Thursday. "We urge Michiganders to continue taking precautions, including wearing masks, social distancing, washing their hands often, staying home if they are ill and avoiding crowds."

'Science? Data?'

On Thursday, Michigan reported 19 new deaths linked to COVID-19 and 715 new cases of the virus statewide. The 715 new cases pushed the overall total to 80,887 and continued a trend of increasing numbers of new cases that started in June.

But hospitalizations and deaths have remained relatively low. Regions 6 and 8, which were slapped with new restrictions, have experienced fewer new cases compared with population than the other six regions of the state, which have been under the 10-person indoor gathering limit.

Region 6, which features 17 counties in northern lower Michigan, has reported 32 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks. Region 8, which spans the 15-county Upper Peninsula, has reported 56 new cases per 100,000 residents.

Michigan's most populated region, Region 1, which includes nine counties in southeast Michigan, has reported 101 new cases per 100,000 residents during the last two weeks.

Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, tweeted Thursday that Whitmer had moved northern Michigan backward while allowing three casinos in Detroit to reopen at 15% capacity on Aug. 5.

"Science? Data?" Chatfield tweeted. "Sorry, but this seems more like political science."

A COVID-19 risk-level map maintained by a group of organizations, including the Harvard Global Health Institute, puts the 17 counties in Region 6 in the lowest two of four risk categories: "on track for containment" and "community spread."

But the Upper Peninsula is a different story. Three of the 15 counties — Gogebic, Menominee and Mackinac — are in the "accelerated spread" risk level, which is the second-highest, according to the map. None of the counties in Michigan are considered to be at the highest risk level called "tipping point."

Doctor: 'Very concerned'

Gogebic County, which borders Wisconsin, has had the most new cases of COVID-19 in ratio to population over the last two weeks of any Michigan county, according to state data.

Van Howe, Western U.P. Health Department's interim director, noted Gogebic is across from Iron County, Wisconsin, a county that is in the highest risk level.

The area is big for tourism, and Wisconsin has had few restrictions in place to stem the spread of COVID-19, Van Howe said. He added people who test positive for COVID-19 in his area are reporting more contacts on average than people in other parts of Michigan.

Van Howe said he is "very concerned" and added some of the health department's warnings seem to be falling "on deaf ears."

Even some people who test positive for COVID-19 after being required to go through testing by their employer have labeled it a "hoax," Van Howe said.

In Marquette County, confirmed cases have increased and compliance with the executive orders has not always been complete, said Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette.

On July 4, a party at McCarty’s Cove — a popular Marquette beach — attracted hundreds of college students, locals and vacationers to the lakefront, Cambensy said. Few attendees were wearing masks or practicing social distancing, the lawmaker said.

“Certainly, in the U.P., we had our own parties and gatherings going on where the vast majority of people were ignoring the rules,” Cambensy said.

But there also has been confusion about the rules bars and restaurants must follow in the U.P., despite many venues’ best efforts to operate within the law, she said.

After overcoming hurdles to reopen, another closure might force some businesses to consider shutting down permanently. 

“As a legislator, that weighs heavy on my mind,” Cambensy said. “Some people saw it coming, and I think other people are clearly disappointed after looking at the data.”

Combating a new virus

In Region 6, the county that has experienced the largest growth in cases recently has been Grand Traverse County, which has 63 new cases over the last two weeks, according to state data.

The county, a tourism destination, is seeing cases tied to travel and group events, such as weddings and bachelor's parties, said Wendy Hirschenberger, health officer for the Grand Traverse County Health Department.

Whitmer's latest orders didn't move Regions 6 and 8 completely back to Phase 4 of the state's reopening plan where the six other regions are, Hirschenberger noted.

The two regions still have a 250-person limit on outdoor gatherings while the rest of the state has a 100-person limit. The governor's team was likely targeting the restrictions at specific types of events that could be causing spread according to case investigations, Hirschenberger said.

"We’re in a  pandemic with a new virus," Hirschenberger added. "We obviously are learning as we go and making adjustments based on the data that we do have.”

But multiple business groups on Thursday argued that the Whitmer administration needed to release more specific data explaining the decision for reimposing restrictions on the Upper Peninsula and northern lower Michigan.

Scott Ellis, president of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said he asked Whitmer's team for the data supporting the decision to close the bars and was told that it was coming from the locals. 

The bars affected by the order are some of the smallest bars in the state, including American Legion locations and small-town pubs.

“The smallest of the small are taking it worse than anybody,” Ellis said. “That’s what I don’t get: How can they be the spreaders?”

After owning Union Street Station in Traverse City for 10 years, Rick Thompson expected to finish paying off the mortgage for the live music venue and bar in the next two and a half years. But the loans he’s taken out during the pandemic shutdowns likely have set back the payoff goal by at least another five years, he said.

Before reopening earlier this summer, Thompson removed tables, closed the dance floor and stage, installed Plexiglass along the bar and reduced capacity from 150 to 40 people.

Since Thompson’s is the only bar that doesn't serve food in downtown Traverse City, he anticipates his location will be one of the only venues to meet the 70% alcohol sale threshold that would trigger closure under the new order.

“If I’m the only bar that gets shut down, then there’s a spot where 40 people can’t go,” Thompson said. “What does that do?”

Fittante at Invest UP said his organization was disappointed by the governor's latest orders, but wouldn't impugn Whitmer's motives. Still, he questioned why there wasn't a more thorough explanation to go along with the decision.

The Upper Peninsula hasn't had a COVID-19 death since June 26, Fittante said. The region has plenty of health care capacity and personal protective equipment available with a low rate of tests bringing positive results, he added.

"We think we’ve managed this responsibly," Fittante said.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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