Michigan hits first vaccine threshold for Whitmer's restriction plan

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Lansing — Michigan hit the first trigger for easing COVID-19 restrictions under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's vaccination plan Monday, an achievement that will soon allow businesses to return more employees to in-person office work.

Michigan had 4.45 million residents with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, equaling just above 55% of the population age 16 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state's tracking page confirmed the federal data at about 4:30 p.m. Monday.

Under Whitmer's "Vacc to Normal" plan, which ties easing restrictions to vaccination rates, the administration will allow in-person work for all business sectors to resume two weeks after 4.44 million residents, or 55% of the adult population age 16 and old, have received their first dose.

Nurse Barbara Coleman-Nunga, left, gives a COVID-19 vaccination at the Ford Wellness Center on the Samaritan Center campus in Detroit in late April. On Monday, Michigan had 55% of adults have had gotten one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Whitmer called the benchmark a "huge milestone" for the state and encouraged unvaccinated individuals to get their shots. The restriction on in-person work is set to ease May 24, according to the state's COVID-19 dashboard.

"I’m excited to announce that 55% of Michiganders have gotten their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine," Whitmer tweeted Monday. "This is a huge milestone in getting #MIVaccToNormal and means that on May 24 we can return to in-person work."

Because the state has hit the 55% benchmark, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration expects two weeks from now to remove a policy from emergency and draft permanent rules that prohibits in-person work where it is feasible for the employee to work remotely, said Sean Egan, COVID-19 workplace safety director for the agency.

"MIOSHA’s rule-making is flexible in that the agency has the ability to modify or rescind all or parts of each rule set to best protect Michigan workers as the pandemic moves closer to ending," Egan said.

Employers who bring employees back to the workplace after May 24 will still need to comply with other mitigation strategies in the rules, he said. 

Current COVID-19 emergency workplace rules establish safety protocols for industries including health care, restaurants, retail, construction and manufacturing. The rules direct employers on a variety of issues including employee safety training, sick employee reporting, face mask use and social distancing.

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration is working to develop permanent rules for the workplace that would go into place in October in the event that COVID is still a threat at that time.

Whitmer announced her "Vacc to Normal" plan on  April 29, 11 days ago.

Remote work imperils some small firms

A potential loosening of restrictions comes after some larger employers, including the Detroit Three automakers, say they will have a more flexible working culture that mixes remote and in-person work.

Most recently, Stellantis NV said under its "New Era of Agility" plan that it expects employees to work remotely on average 70% of the time instead of at its Auburn Hills North America headquarters. General Motors Co. in its “Work Appropriately” plan gives teams the choice to decide where to work, and Ford Motor Co.’s hybrid model enables employees to structure where they work.

The approach varies from workplace to workplace, said Wendy Block, vice president of business advocacy and member engagement for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

"Some employers have decided they're going to keep employees home through Sept. 1 or even Jan. 1, and others are saying ... we want to start phasing and bringing back people a few days a week two weeks after we hit the 55% mark," Block said. "A lot of that has to do with the nature of the work being done, what they're hearing from employees."

The Michigan chamber continues to have concerns about inconsistencies in the Whitmer administration's statements.

"Although we are inclined to believe the news today is entirely positive and clears the way towards the resumption of in-person work in late May, we continue to question how the 'Vacc to Normal' plan meshes with MIOSHA’s announcement that it plans to promulgate permanent COVID-19 workplace safety rules, including a rule that requires employers to create policies promoting remote work for employees," Block said.

"The governor’s announcement today doesn’t mesh with MIOSHA’s ongoing activities and actions."

Sandy Baruah, president and chief executive officer of the Detroit Regional Chamber, noted on Monday that "a strong majority of businesses have been anxious for a return-to-the-office green light. And they're ready to go."

A concern is how smaller service-based businesses from restaurants to coffee shops will be affected if larger businesses occupying office space in downtown Detroit and elsewhere decide remote work is the future. 

"It's really important for the larger businesses to start bringing back their employees because the small businesses around them are largely dependent upon that kind of foot traffic," Baruah said.  

Next easing steps loom

After 55%, the next step in the "Vacc to Normal" plan occurs when 4.85 million residents, 60% of the adult population, have had their first dose. Two weeks after that, the Whitmer administration said it would lift the 11 p.m. curfew on restaurants and bars and further relax restrictions on sports stadiums, gyms and conference centers.

The other triggers occur two weeks after the state hits 65% and 70% for first dose vaccinations.

Two weeks after 65%, or when 5.26 million residents have had their first dose, the administration would lift all indoor capacity limits and further ease policies for residential gatherings. Two weeks after 70%, or when 5.66 million have had their first dose, the administration would lift the gathering and face mask order.

Michigan's COVID-19 infection rates have been trending downward for about three weeks after a surge of the virus hit in March and April. Last week, the state reported 18,248 new cases, the lowest total in seven weeks. Likewise, the number of adults hospitalized with COVID-19 dropped to 2,206 on Monday, a 36% drop from two weeks earlier.

Michigan still leads the nation in new coronavirus per population, but the number is decreasing and the gap between Michigan and other states has also declined.

Last week, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services began tracking vaccination rates based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which include some populations that were not featured in the state's own numbers previously.

The federal data include residents vaccinated through Veterans Affairs, the Bureau of Prisons and most out-of-state providers, meaning someone from Michigan who traveled to Ohio, Indiana or Wisconsin for their doses.

"Today marks an important milestone that office-based businesses and downtown business districts have been looking forward to for a long time," said Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, in a statement to The Detroit News. "Small businesses have proven their ability to manage their own businesses while protecting employees and customers."

cmauger@detroitnews.com

khall@detroitnews.com

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