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Michigan extends indoor dining ban but allows casinos, cinemas, bowling alleys to reopen

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state officials have extended a ban on in-person dining at restaurants through Jan. 15, while reopening casinos, bowling alleys and stadiums as well as allowing for in-person learning at Michigan high schools.

The casinos, cinemas, bowling alleys and stadiums are allowed to reopen on Monday with restrictions, according to a Department of Health and Human Services document obtained by The Detroit News. Their capacity will be capped at 100 people, food and drink concessions must remain closed and social distancing must be observed. 

“These past few weeks, Michiganders across the state stepped up and did their part to slow the spread of COVID-19, and because of our collective hard work, we are now able to begin the steps to carefully lift some of the protocols we have in place,” Whitmer said. “I am encouraged by the progress we have made since early November, and will continue to monitor the data closely during and after the holidays."

The new order takes effect Monday, meaning high school students can return to class that day if schools and districts desire to do so. However, many high schools will go on holiday break through early January.

Colleges and universities have agreed to wait until Jan. 18 to start in-person classes, Whitmer said. 

The governor noted the indoor dining ban runs through Jan. 15, but, she said, "if we substantially sustain our progress, we will seriously consider lifting our protocols sooner.” The success of the continued closure will likely be dependent on people's behavior over the Christmas and New Year's holidays, Whitmer said. 

The order drew swift criticism from Republicans, with the Michigan Republican Party accusing the governor of ignoring "the pleas of citizens across Michigan who are suffering personally and financially due to her shutdown policies."

"I condemn Gov. Whitmer’s decision to keep many small businesses closed, and hope she reverses this course of action so that Michigan families can have financial stability this holiday season," Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox said in a statement. 

State Sen. Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway Township, criticized the governor for extending the indoor dining ban while infections and hospitalizations in Michigan continue to decrease. Whitmer, he said, "does not trust Michiganders to act responsibly" and is ignoring the state's own data showing restaurants only contributed to roughly 4% of outbreaks prior to closure. 

Improving numbers

Across the state, the case rate has dropped from 739 cases per million people per day on Nov. 14 to 439 cases per million people per day currently and the proportion of hospital beds being used for COVID-19 patients dropped to 17.3%, down from a peak of 20.1% Dec. 1, Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said.

"Michiganders did what they were supposed to do over the Thanksgiving holiday," she said. The state initially conveyed dire warnings after Thanksgiving, believing too many people traveled and would contribute to a spike, but that fear never materialized. 

Last week, 11.4% of the state’s COVID-19 tests were positive, which is the lowest rate over the past five weeks. Last week, Michigan also reported its lowest weekly number of new cases since early November.  

As of Thursday, 3,082 adults were hospitalized with confirmed cases of the coronavirus. That total was down 19% from two weeks earlier, according to state data.

The number of deaths remains "deeply concerning," with about 100 per day, Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said. Deaths are often a "lagging indicator" some weeks after cases decrease, he said. 

"We have made great progress, but that progress is precarious," Gordon said.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the public during a press conference in Lansing on Friday.

Industry reacts

High school students have been learning virtually since Nov. 18 during a "Pause to Save Lives" directive that the governor credits with lowering the state's case numbers and hospital capacity. Gordon has said previously that in-person learning would be more likely to come back online ahead of restaurants or bars. 

Under the order, bars and restaurants remained closed for dine-in service but are able to offer outdoor dining, carry-out and delivery. In-person instruction was suspended at colleges, universities and high schools, and high school sports also were suspended. Casinos, movie theaters and group exercise classes were closed. 

Schools celebrated the reopening of in-person learning for high school students, with the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators noting classroom instruction was "a top priority."

"While safety remains paramount, we know that Michigan’s children are in definite need of the social and emotional learning and benefits they get from actually being in the classroom," said Dr. Tina Kerr, executive director for the association. 

A lawsuit challenging the weeks-long closure by the Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools remains pending, but counsel on the case said the association is pleased with the administration's decision. 

"We stand with our clients and are ready, willing and able to assert their rights should the administration act in a way that disadvantages religious schools and families again in the future," said Thomas Rheaume Jr., lead counsel for the association.   

But with the indoor dining closure extension, restaurants and bars will have been closed to indoor dining a total of 58 straight days by Jan. 15 and 143 days total since March, said Justin Winslow, president and CEO for the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The association sued the state over the closure, arguing restaurants have complied with safety regulations and, at the time of closure, only about 4% of outbreaks could be traced to the industry.

But a couple of hours after the order was extended Friday, the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, two hospitality groups and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services filed a joint stipulation to dismiss the case against the state without prejudice, according to court records. The filing gave no reason for the request. 

Bars and restaurants have so far been denied immediate relief in court, but federal Judge Paul Maloney had indicated he might certify questions to the Michigan Supreme Court to determine whether the state's orders are constitutional. 

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, celebrated the opening of some business but said the restrictions on restaurants "threaten the vitality of indoor dining establishments."

Chef Shannon Nowowiecki and his partner, Aimee Walker, are taking the government restrictions day-by-day at the Corner Kitchen, the St. Clair Shores restaurant they opened in July 2019.

“We’re just kind of numb to it at this point. My partner and I look at it is, there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Nowowiecki. “We try not to get into any political aspect because we’re here for everybody; we’re not here for Democrats or Republicans or independents.”

The business has been surviving by offering small grocery items, boxes of fruits and vegetables, and a variety of carryout and curbside pickup selections.

“We just view it as, there’s nothing we can do about it, no matter how loud you scream or stomp your feet. It was our eight-month anniversary when the first lockdown happened and we just looked at each other and said, ‘We have to keep on going.’”

Michigan theater owners are scrambling to figure out a plan to open but are questioning the sustainability of opening under such constraints. Some industry estimates say theaters earn up to 85% of their revenue through concession sales, and their overhead costs are too high to open without them.

"It's not economically viable for us to be open without concession sales," said Paula Guthat, co-owner of Midtown's two-screen independent movie house Cinema Detroit, on Friday. "We’re not able to be open because we wouldn’t be able to cover our costs without that income. It would make more sense for the theaters to be completely closed."

Vicki Ingham, general manager of Thunderbowl Lanes, said the Allen Park bowling alley is prepared to reopen Monday and is excited for the resumption of high school bowling. The prohibition on concessions, however, will be a challenge for the business, she said.

About half of the alley's 40-some employees are tied to food and beverage service, she said.

"We agree that something still needs to be ongoing, of course, for the health of everyone — our employees and the public — but we still feel very strongly that we're able to police ourselves by not having lines at food or beverage areas, by delivering foods, and still requiring mask-wearing at all times if someone isn't physically eating or drinking," she said.

"So it does cripple us a little bit, financially. It certainly cripples us from being able to bring our entire staff back, so that problem hasn't been solved."

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

Staff Writers Jordyn Grzelewski, Adam Graham and Riley Beggin contributed.