Whitmer urges virtual school classes, no youth sports for two weeks

Lansing — Amid the spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday strongly urged a two-week pause for youth sports, in-person high school classes and in-door dining.

Whitmer's call for restricting activity was voluntary. She did not direct the state health department director to issue new epidemic orders to require the actions, but her tone was urgent. 

"To be very clear, these are not orders, mandates or requirements," Whitmer said of her requests to schools, athletes and restaurants. "A year in, we all know what works and this has to be a team effort. We have to do this together. Lives depend on it."

The governor asked people to avoid indoor gatherings in general and pushed for more residents to get one of the three COVID-19 vaccines, noting a steady supply and demand could mean the state reaches its goal of 70% vaccination of individuals 16 years and older by mid-May at the earliest.

Through Thursday, the state had vaccinated 25% or 2 million of its adult population. 

It appeared Whitmer's pleas went initially unheeded on Friday, as many restaurants, schools and at least some youth sports groups said they wouldn't suspend play or operations.

The Catholic High School League in Metro Detroit, for example, plans to continue with spring practices and games.

"If any Catholic League member school determines that a two-week pause for sports is necessary in their community, they will not be penalized in any way and games will be rescheduled accordingly,"  league director Vic Michaels said. 

More: Biden to surge vaccinators, testing to hard-hit Michigan

Whitmer also spoke to President Joe Biden on Thursday evening and asked his administration to send extra vaccines, particularly the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, to hard-hit states like Michigan. But the White House is sticking with its plan to allocate doses by population. 

"I made the case for a surge strategy. At this point, that's not being deployed, but I am not giving up," Whitmer said. 

Instead, the federal government is sending a therapeutics, additional vaccinators and mobile testing to the state, which is leading the nation in the rate of new COVID cases, hospitalizations and intensive care use. The state reported 7,834 new cases Friday and 26 deaths tied to the virus.

Michigan continues to lead the nation for the highest number of new cases by population. 

As result, Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor, Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and the Ascension Michigan health system based in Warren have all begun to limit or delay non-essential surgeries as hospital loads increase. 

Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun warned Michigan's case count is so high that it's also causing delays in contact tracing and outbreak tracking, and causing hospitals to prepare for surge capacity. Some of the state's current coronavirus data is likely an undercount, she said. 

"Because we are seeing so many cases a day, our public health system is overwhelmed," Khaldun said.

On Friday, House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said he was glad Whitmer "encouraged personal responsibility and safety" instead of requiring it through orders that have "hurt working people and children."

“Now let’s take the next logical step," Wentworth said. "Let’s remove the remaining restrictions in Michigan, put everyone back to work when they can do it safely, and trust the people of this state to do the right thing for themselves and their families."

On the vaccine front, Whitmer made clear that vaccinating 70% of people 16 years and older by mid-May is a rosy scenario.

"Assuming there are no setbacks and everything goes as we are led to believe that it will go and we don’t have any lulls in terms of demand, which is another big if, we could theoretically by the middle of May be to a place where we're at 70%," she said.

The governor admitted the chances of reaching the goal are "probably not highly likely." There are "high probabilities" of a "glitch" happening or health officials needing "to do more work to earn the confidence of the public to get more people to be interested in getting vaccinated."

"But at this juncture, if all of those things happen well in advance of or at least by the Fourth of July, we could hit that 70% number," she said.

Friday's press conference came two days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director pushed for stronger restrictions to slow the surge in Michigan, which continues to lead the nation in new cases by population. 

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky encouraged restrictions in Michigan that included tighter rules around youth sports, which are currently allowed with masks and testing. Walensky is the appointee of President Joe Biden, for whom Whitmer campaigned in the fall election.

Whitmer has said the surge in Michigan is not due to a lack of policy but instead because of variant prevalence, mobility and lack of compliance with existing policies. 

Whitmer's suggestion for a two-week pause was panned by some schools and the state's restaurant association, which argued there is little proof that outbreaks due to indoor dining are driving the surge in cases.

The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association said in a statement that Whitmer's suggestion to stop indoor dining was "misguided" and didn't track with state data showing restaurant patrons were involved with 0.3% of Michigan's nearly 1,000 outbreaks.

"As we approach a herd immunity in Michigan that will transform the hospitality industry for the better, it is incumbent on us all to act with common sense and proper precaution," said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the association.

"But the continued scapegoating of the restaurant industry without proof or reliable data won’t make it come any sooner."

Caucus Club owner George Sboukis’ only option to serve customers is to have them dine inside. The historic, fine-dining restaurant has no outdoor patio.

He said he’s not concerned that the steakhouse will lose any reservations over Whitmer’s urging diners to not dine indoors.

“Talking to some of the diners that were here yesterday and their mood and their mindset, it doesn’t sound like we’re going to have much of that,” he said.

Several Michigan school districts had already opted to return to remote learning after their spring breaks ended. That included the Detroit Public School Community District, which took a two-week pause in in-person class that started Monday and runs through April 23.

Other districts such as Dearborn, Warren Consolidated School district and Utica Community Schools sent their students into remote learning for one week after spring break.

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools, said he is not voluntarily moving his high school students into remote learning and says schools are unfairly being blamed for COVID-19 spread.

“My thoughts are that, if it’s that serious, why are they asking us to do it voluntary? If it really is an emergency, it should be mandated by the governor, the health department — by somebody,” Matthews said.

The district has 1,000 students in person at Novi High School every day. About 75 students are in quarantine, including 23 who are positive, 15 who have a pending test and 40 who are in quarantine as close contacts.

“We have done what they have asked. We have created as much social distancing as possible. We are spreading out people on buses and in lunchrooms. Students use wipes every period,” Matthews said. "Seventy-five students in a quarantine does not constitute an emergency."

The Royal Oak school district plans to continue in-person learning and athletic activities next week, Superintendent Mary Beth Patrick said in a letter to parents Friday.

But state Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice supported Whitmer's calls to action.

“Michigan educators, students, and families have risen to the challenge over the past year, and I am confident they will continue to do what is needed to help save lives as we keep fighting the pandemic,” Rice said in a statement provided by Whitmer's office.

Whitmer's announcement Friday came with the high-school basketball season set to conclude Saturday at the Michigan High School Athletic Association finals at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

"We are on schedule to finish basketball over the next two days, and it will be up to schools to decide what they will do locally for spring sports over the next two weeks," MHSAA director of communications Geoff Kimmerly said Friday.

Just last week, a state epidemic order went into effect requiring all non-school youth athletes ages 13-19 to test weekly to participate. That order was supposed to stand from April 2-17. 

"We're glad it didn't get shut down, because we put all the protocols in place that we were told we needed to to provide a safe environment," Michigan State Youth Soccer Association (MSYSA) vice president Anthony Spica told The Detroit News on Friday.

"I've got to believe that our soccer environment is one of the safest conditions these kids are in, especially when you compare it to going to school, where you're inside and there's no mandatory testing."

Some school officials said they needed to assess their situation before deciding how to proceed with their sports programs. 

"If the MHSAA decides to do something, we will clearly stay in line with it," Ypsilanti Lincoln athletic director Chris Westfall said. "We've been pretty lucky and safe in that we've had a minimum number of cases."

Staff Writers Jennifer Chambers, Sarah Rahal, Melody Baetens, Nolan Bianchi and Dave Goricki contributed.