Whitmer: Indoor and outdoor sports allowed; Michigan gyms can reopen

Lansing — Gyms can reopen at limited capacity and organized sports can resume in Michigan under new executive orders that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released Thursday, but one directive clashed with a recommendation by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The long-awaited orders, Nos. 175 and 176, allow for organized sports with limitations on mask use and crowd size, despite guidance from Whitmer's health department recommending against contact sports, including football, soccer and wrestling.

They came on the same day the governor extended through Oct. 1 the state of emergency, which is what gives her the ability to make unilateral actions to combat the virus, such as closing businesses or penalizing those who don't wear masks.

The order allowing for contact sports in spite of the health department's recommendation concerned at least one epidemiologist, who opined it would almost surely lead to further virus spread.

The orders would allow Michigan gyms and pools to reopen at 25% capacity starting Wednesday with strict protocols in place, including mask use at all times and distancing of 6 feet between workout stations and individuals participating in classes. 

Gym patrons must provide their name and phone number, or they will be denied entry. Saunas and hot tubs must remain closed.

Indoor pools will be capped at 25% capacity, while outdoor pools remain capped at 50%. 

“I urge everyone who plans to hit the gym after these orders go into effect to take these precautions seriously and do everything in their power to protect themselves and their families," Whitmer said in a Thursday statement. "Be smart, and stay safe.” 

Owner Ken Welch has been anticipating officially reopening Pointe Fitness and Training Center in Harper Woods for months. Closed during the coronavirus state shut down, many gyms are ready to open.

Indoor organized sports also can resume, but guests will be limited to two per athlete. Outdoor organized sports would be limited to up to 100 guests. 

Athletes will be required to wear masks, except when swimming, and should maintain 6 feet of distance when "compatible," according to Whitmer's order.

Bowling and ice rinks may only open for organized sports, according to the order.

The executive orders were followed closely by an announcement from the Michigan High School Athletic Association that reinstated the fall football season after it had been postponed to the spring. Games can begin Sept. 18, the league said.

The association also noted competitions could start immediately for boys soccer and on Wednesday for girls swimming, diving and volleyball. 

There is no mention in the orders of the reopening of movie theaters or banquet facilities in lower Michigan, where they have been shuttered since March.

High school concerns

The state Department of Health and Human Services rules that were issued in tandem with the orders recommend against contact sports such as football, wrestling or soccer at schools and universities. But the department said the guidance could be adjusted with updated epidemiological data.

The health department's guidance recommends frequent hand-washing, proper disinfecting of facilities or shared equipment, avoidance of shared items such as towels or water bottles, avoidance of post-game high fives or handshakes, and limitations on carpools.

There have been at least 30 outbreak investigations in recent weeks linked to sports teams, clubs and gyms, according to the state health department. The outbreaks can easily spread beyond the team and to the community. 

“Individuals can now choose whether or not to play organized sports, and if they do choose to play, this order requires strict safety measures to reduce risk,” Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said Thursday. "Based on current data, contact sports create a high risk of COVID-19 transmission and MDHHS strongly recommends against participating in them at this time."

The orders do not detail exceptions for ancillary activities such as marching band or cheerleading, but noted the "elevated risk" that accompanies “shouting, singing or breathing forcefully.”

Public Guidance for Contact Sports.pdf | Transmission (Medicine) | Clinical Medicine

So long as gyms adhere to the restrictions in Whitmer's order, the activity should be "part of the universe" of openings that can occur with controlled risk, said Nigel Paneth, a professor at Michigan State University's Departments of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and Pediatrics and Human Development. 

But Paneth was less confident about the order allowing organized sports, calling it a "mistake" that has been proven to lead to virus transmission among athletes in contact sports.

"I'm with the health department," said Paneth, referring to the department's recommendation against high school sports. "These kind of group activities just are not working."

Even mask use is no guarantee that the virus wouldn't spread among athletes, he said. 

"Helmets fall off. Shoulder pads fall off. You think a mask is going to stay on?” Paneth said. "I think it’s a step too far because it really is going to almost surely promote the spread of infections."

Whitmer's administration has been hinting at the reopening of gyms and other shuttered businesses for about three weeks as calls to reopen the facilities have mounted. 

Most businesses in Michigan closed abruptly March 23 when Whitmer issued her Stay Home, Stay Safe order in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. 

She gradually loosened the restrictions, allowing 17 northern Michigan counties and the Upper Peninsula to reopen restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theaters in May. She re-tightened bar restrictions there in July. 

Lower Michigan restaurants reopened in June. 

Last month, Whitmer allowed Detroit's three casinos to reopen at 15% capacity.

Business owners weigh in

The Michigan Fitness Club Association said Thursday it appreciated the reopening and committed to the "health and safety" of members and the public.

"We are well-prepared to ensure a safe, clean environment and we are excited to offer Michiganders the opportunity to resume their exercise routines," the group said. "We look forward to working with Gov. Whitmer and her administration to help build a healthy Michigan.” 

For others, the executive orders were lacking key permissions that struggling, still-closed businesses sought.

The ongoing closure of banquet halls will decimate facilities across the state, said Alex Lozovoj, general manager of the Italian American Cultural Society in Clinton Township. Lozovoj has canceled weddings and events, run through a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and is about to start construction on a 3,000-square-foot outdoor platform to hold events. 

"We have no end in sight on this," Lozovoj said. "We’re crying, we’re begging the government to open us back up because we’ve already lost all our peak time.

"If this doesn’t end soon, I can’t imagine any of the banquet halls in the state being able to survive.”

For Mike Lucente, owner of Harbor Lanes Bowling Center in St. Clair Shores, the news that he can reopen is well-timed. 

“This is our normal start-up time either before or after Labor Day,” he said. “I just had a league meeting (Wednesday) night. … They are ready to go. They want to bowl.”

Lucente said that league play makes up 75% of his business. He missed the summer league, which would have run for about 14 weeks. 

Lucente has had concerns about losing business due to the closure.

“I might lose these people forever,” he said. “Once they find other things to do, you can’t get them back.”

Ken Welch, owner of Pointe Fitness and Training Center in Harper Woods, said Thursday he’s relieved he will be able to reopen his gym. The decision is long overdue, he said. 

“If you design it in a more structured way to limit the crowd, we could have been doing this,” Welch said.

The fitness center owner now needs to decide which approaches he’ll take to limit capacity, which could include an appointment-based system, shortened hours and limited session times.

“We have a conscientiousness membership that’s very aware of all of these things,” Welch said. “It’s not going to be a hard sell.”

Although Pointe Fitness and Training Center has lost clients, Welch said he has retained a core group of members he expects to return.

“Financially, I think we’re going to be OK,” Welch said. “We did get a little bit of government money. I’m not going to go into detail, but that’s helped us out to kind of weather this. All small gyms have that kind of thing. If you’re not working another job or didn’t get your loans from the government, you’re hurting.”

Kathy Chester, owner of Disrupt Fitness Gym in Berkley, said she’s excited to work out with her clients.

“Our kids, our clients need to be physically moving for their mental well-being and everything,” she said. “I think it’s so important.”

Chester said she has concerns about the use of masks indoors. She’s been doing cardio workouts outside in the park. Some participants have worn masks, some haven’t. 

“That’s incredibly difficult to be working out in masks,” she said. “And so I want them to be able to do that in a place where they can get enough airflow and not get so overwhelmed. I can’t imagine running on a treadmill.”

She recommends clients purchase high-quality athletic masks.

There likely will be more of a focus on personal training instead of fitness classes, Chester said.

“I don’t think clients are going to be able to go into a class…,” she said. “I think that will nerve them up.”