Gov. Whitmer proposes $79B budget with record school funding, tax relief

Michigan movie theaters, bowling alleys, venues can reopen Oct. 9; gathering limits eased

Craig Mauger Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued major executive orders Friday afternoon that will reopen movie theaters, stadiums and other businesses that have been closed since March as well as ease limits on public gatherings across the state.

The new changes will begin reviving some sectors of Michigan's economy while allowing more people to come together for events such as receptions and funerals during the pandemic.

Theaters, performance venues, arcades, bingo halls, bowling centers, indoor climbing facilities, amusement parks and trampoline parks will be able to reopen Oct. 9, according to Whitmer's office. But businesses will have to keep records on those entering their facilities in case of an outbreak, so they can be contacted later.

“We’re excited to reopen, and we have every intention to open Oct. 9. We’re prepared,” said Erik Gubert, marketing director for MJR Digital Cinemas.

The 10-theater chain plans to show a mix of classic films and movies that have opened in recent weeks at other theaters around the country, including “Tenet” and "New Mutants."

Paul Glantz, chairman of Emagine Entertainment, said his nine closed Michigan theaters will reopen Oct. 9, and his team will be trained on new safety and social distancing protocols.

Masks will be required in theaters and in the lobby area, except when patrons are eating and drinking. Staff members will be fully trained on new cleaning and safety procedures, and all auditoriums will be cleaned between showings, Gubert said Friday. Showtimes will be spaced out to allow for less congestion in the lobby areas, he said. 

“We’ve been sitting on pins and needles for the last several months,” Gubert said. “We’re very excited (about the announcement). We’ve been preparing for reopening ever since we closed. We’ve been waiting for this moment, and we’re ready to go.” 

Whitmer's new order also "relaxes restrictions" on social gatherings and organized events. Currently, gatherings are limited to 10 people indoors and 100 people outdoors in much of Michigan.

Friday's announcements came 199 days after Michigan reported its first cases of COVID-19. The state has now confirmed 120,526 cases of the virus and 6,790 deaths linked to it.

The rate of new cases peaked in Michigan in April but has remained relatively flat in recent weeks. There are still fears of a new wave of infections as temperatures drop and people take their activities indoors.

"Michigan took some of the most aggressive action against COVID-19 in the country, and, as a result, the health of our families and our economy are faring better than our neighbors in other states," Whitmer said in a statement. "As a result, we are now able to reopen movie theaters and performance venues with strict safety measures in place.

"I know these business owners have made incredible sacrifices during this crisis to protect our families and front-line workers, and my administration will continue working to help them get back on their feet."

Opening restrictions

Under the new order, all individuals entering entertainment venues must wear masks at all times and keep 6 feet apart in crowd-limited seating areas or waiting areas.

The edict requires venues to maintain records, including the names and contact information, of individuals entering the facility to help with contact tracing should the facility experience a COVID-19 case. People unwilling to provide their name and phone number would be denied entry.

Surfaces must be disinfected often, signs must be posted barring sick people from coming inside and all self-serve food or drink services must be closed.

Beginning Oct. 9, most non-residential indoor venues can host gatherings and organized events so long as they maintain fewer than 20 people per 1,000 square feet and require facial coverings, the new order says.

In Northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, non-residential indoor gatherings will be allowed as long as they feature fewer than 25 people per 1,000 square feet.

Performance venues and stadiums, similarly, will be permitted to operate at 20% seating capacity, the order says. Such gatherings and events must be no larger than 500 people in the largest indoor venues in a bid to reduce the risk of a “superspreader” event, the order adds.

"Outdoor gathering and event restrictions will also be relaxed, so long as they maintain fewer than 30 people per 1,000 square feet, or 30% seating capacity, up to 1,000 people in the largest outdoor space," the new order says of outdoor gatherings at non-residential locations.

The gathering limit changes will likely allow small crowds at concert venues and potentially football stadiums. The Detroit Lions have a home game against the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 1 — the first home game after Whitmer's order takes effect.

The Detroit Pistons and Red Wings have a longer time to make a decision about allowing spectators since the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League playoffs are still going, and the new regular seasons aren't expected to start until 2021. The Pistons have been regularly surveying their season ticket holders about attending games in person while COVID-19 remains prevalent.

The eased restrictions come 39 days before the Nov. 3 election. While there have been exemptions for First Amendment-related activities in past orders, Whitmer's latest changes might inspire some political candidates to hold larger events in the coming weeks.

Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, welcomed the capacity changes that will affect meeting and banquet spaces across the state.

"Increasing capacity to 20 people per 1,000 square feet to the rest of the state — while increasing to 25 people per 1,000 square feet for Regions 6 and 8 — is a step in the right direction to give Michigan’s hospitality industry a better shot at remaining open and viable as the colder winter months approach," Winslow said.

Likewise, Phil Douma, executive director of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association, said increasing the number of people who can attend funerals is "the right thing to do."

"Grieving families across our state can now more properly mourn their losses and honor those they love," Douma said.

Theaters plan reopening

Paul Glantz, chairman of Emagine Entertainment, said he got a heads-up about the governor’s order at about 1 p.m. Friday. Asked if Friday was a good day, “I don’t think they get much better, do they?” he said.  

Glantz said Emagine’s nine closed Michigan theaters will reopen Oct. 9, and his team will be trained on new safety and social distancing protocols.

Emagine plans to go ahead with its planned Juneteeth Film Festival, which will include showings of films including "Do the Right Thing," "If Beale Street Could Talk," "The Color Purple" and "I Am Not Your Negro" at the Emagine Royal Oak theater, with net ticket proceeds going to the United Negro College Fund.

The film fest was planned to be held in June but was postponed after state Attorney General Dana Nessel’s Office said opening the theater would violate Whitmer’s executive orders.

Cinema Detroit’s Paula Guthat said she was “gobsmacked” Friday when she heard the news theaters were allowed to open Oct. 9 and said she was both elated and relieved to hear the news.

“I didn’t think we would be reopening this year,” Guthat said.

The two-screen complex will be scaled down to one screen upon reopening. The large auditorium, which holds 125 people, will be limited to a capacity of 20-25 people, with seats marked off between parties. The smaller theater, which only holds about 20 people, will be closed.

Guthat wasn’t sure what titles the theater would be showing when opened, but she was certain she’d be playing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in time for Halloween.

The shutdown has been difficult for the independent theater in Midtown Detroit, which has been running at about 5% revenue since March, Guthat said. The theater has done curbside concession sales and has held four drive-in movie screenings, she said. It also has been counting on donations from patrons and kickbacks from online virtual cinema rentals to stay afloat.

Guthat has also used the time to tighten procedures and focus the theater’s business plan going forward, “and that’s been valuable,” she said.  

But watching so many other businesses open while hers remained shut was tough, she said.

“I know we can open safely,” Guthat said. “It’s a good day.”

But the Detroit Institute of Arts, which has a movie theater, was more cautious about its plans.  

“I'm encouraged by the governor's order, but re-opening a historic, 1,100-seat theater requires significant planning and preparation to ensure the health and safety of our guests and staff,"  Detroit Film Theatre’s curator of film Elliot Wilhelm said in a statement.

"The DIA has already begun analysis and planning and we're moving forward with utmost caution, as we did when reopening the DIA's galleries. Not until all details for safety are in place will we announce an opening date for DFT."

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.