Michigan rolls back mask requirements for fully vaccinated people in 'huge step'

Craig Mauger Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration announced Friday it will lift mask requirements for fully vaccinated individuals through a new epidemic order that represents a milestone in the state's fight against COVID-19.

The text of the new policy was released at about 8:30 p.m. Friday night, less than 13 hours before it was set to take effect at 9 a.m. Saturday. The order expires at the end of May 31.

Some business owners indicated earlier Friday they weren't clear about what they could do, and some sought legal advice.

The state court system decided to maintain its mask mandate. But the Detroit Tigers said late Friday masks would no longer be required at home games starting Saturday.

Michigan High School Athletic Association executive director Mark Uyl announced late Friday night that starting Saturday, outdoor sport athletes, coaches and staff do not need to wear masks. Fully vaccinated individuals (14 days past their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of Johnson & Johnson) involved in indoor sports are no longer required to use a face covering.

The order follows guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whitmer's administration also revealed that the broad indoor mask mandate will expire July 1. In a video posted on social media, the Democratic governor called the announcement a "huge step" on the state's path to normalcy. It came 385 days after she first issued an executive order directing residents to wear homemade face coverings.

"With millions of Michiganders fully vaccinated, we can now safely and confidently take the next step to get back to normal," Whitmer said. "The message is clear: Vaccines work to protect you and your loved ones. If you have not yet received your vaccine, now is the time to sign up."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer takes a selfie with Tatum Smith.

The new order exempts the fully vaccinated from the state's mask requirements. It also says businesses responsible for locations where indoor gatherings occur must make a "good faith effort" to comply with the ongoing mask mandate for those who haven't been vaccinated. The effort could be merely posting signs  "notifying people that wearing a mask is required unless a person falls into a specified exception," according to the order.

Under the federal guidance, the CDC said those who have been fully vaccinated — meaning those who are two weeks past their last dose of vaccine — don't need to wear face coverings in most indoor venues. President Joe Biden labeled the announcement "a great day for America in our long battle with the coronavirus."

"The CDC is saying they have concluded that fully vaccinated people are at a very, very low risk of getting COVID-19," Biden said Thursday. "Therefore, if you've been fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask."

How policy is changing

Under the state's new order, residents who are outdoors no longer need to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status. Indoors, fully vaccinated Michiganians will no longer need to wear masks, but residents who are not vaccinated, or have not completed their vaccinations, must continue to wear face coverings.

Previously, fully vaccinated people were exempted from having to wear masks at residential gatherings. Otherwise, masks usually were required at indoor gatherings, and businesses were supposed to enforce the policy.

Some of the details of the new policy remained unclear Friday, including how it would affect schools, where some older students have been eligible for vaccines but younger students haven't.

Business groups also questioned how the order would impact workplace safety protocols that have been advanced by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The agency is "in the process of reviewing both the emergency rules and draft permanent rules," said Sean Egan, Michigan's COVID-19 workplace safety director.

The new epidemic order should be celebrated, said Dr. Pino Colone, president of the Michigan State Medical Society.

"Still, it is important to remember that this vaccine does not eliminate COVID-19," Colone said. "It protects us from the disease. As more and more people are vaccinated, more and more people are protected. This must continue to be our goal."

Michigan's mask requirements have been a point of contention between the governor's administration and the Republican-controlled Legislature for months. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has argued against a statewide mask mandate, saying officeholders should instead encourage and inform residents.

Whitmer should remove Michigan's remaining restrictions, allowing "everyone to go back to work and return to their normal lives," Michigan House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said in a Friday statement. He also suggested she move up the July 1 date for removing the overall state mask requirements.

"There is no science that says July 1 is a safer date to stop wearing a mask than any other day; it is just a round number on the calendar," Wentworth said. "Let’s move it up sooner, embrace the strategy of trust that’s working right now and move Michigan past this pandemic."

Michigan continues to lead the nation in new COVID-19 cases per population after a surge in March and April, but the state's infection rates have been dropping for more than three weeks. Last week, Michigan reported 18,248 new cases, a 47% decline from two weeks earlier.

On Friday, 1,936 Michigan adults were hospitalized with COVID-19, a 36% decrease from the total two weeks earlier. Hospitalizations have been declining since April 19.

Courts, companies respond

In a memo, State Court Administrator Tom Boyd said "current health conditions warrant continued safety precautions" in Michigan's court system. Courts will continue to follow past guidance, requiring face coverings and social distancing for both visitors and staff, Boyd's memo said.

General Motors Co. said Thursday night, after the CDC guidance was issued, that it is awaiting guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Stellantis continues to advocate that employees get vaccinated and will continue to require the use of masks in its facilities, said Jodi Tinson, spokeswoman for the transatlantic automaker of Jeep and Ram vehicles.

Meijer, the retail giant, said it will continue to require face coverings be worn by anyone entering its stores, except where medical conditions prevent them from wearing one.

"While we are aware of new CDC guidance, many state or local orders in the Meijer footprint remain in effect regarding masks," the Grand Rapids-based retail chain said.

The Kroger Co. will continue to require everyone in its stores to wear masks, spokeswoman Rachel Hurst said in a statement. The company is incentivizing employees to get the vaccine by offering a $100 bonus.

Michigan's past epidemic order, announced on May 4, mentioned the "fully vaccinated" in only two places: defining the term as those who received their final dose at least two weeks earlier and exempting them from a requirement that masks be worn at indoor residential gatherings. The previous order stipulated that masks are generally not required outdoors in Michigan, whether a person is vaccinated or not.

As of Friday, 4.5 million Michigan residents, 55.6% of the adult population, have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to federal tracking. According to the state's data, 3.5 million residents, 43.6% of the adult population, are fully vaccinated. 

On April 29, Whitmer announced her "MI Vacc to Normal," tying the relaxation of many of the state's gathering restrictions to vaccination rates.

Two weeks after 60% of the adult population have received their first dose, the state will lift the 11 p.m. curfew for restaurants and bars and ease capacity restrictions for stadiums, gyms and banquet halls.

Two weeks after 70% of the adult population have received their first dose, the administration plans to lift the statewide mask and gathering order.

Restaurants weigh order

Feast in Chesterfield Township opened its doors in March, and chef Jared Bobkin knows he’s under additional scrutiny as a new establishment. He said he has followed CDC guidelines since then, even shutting down for two weeks just six weeks after opening when cases rose in Michigan. He plans on following this CDC recommendation, too, and doing so on an honor system.

“We will ask our staff to wear masks if they are comfortable doing so still,” Bobkin said. “I personally don’t feel it’s appropriate to ask if they’ve been vaccinated."

That's because inquiring about vaccination could involve the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which spells out federal medical record privacy rules, he said.

In addition, Feast is planning to amend the signs in the restaurants to say if a customer is vaccinated, then no mask is required. Social distancing and capacity restrictions will continue to be enforced, the chef said.

If he receives legal guidance the restaurant can ask without violating the medical privacy rules, then proof of a vaccine will be required to enter without a mask whether by a vaccine card or even a photo the person posted on Facebook, he said.

Other restaurants said it’s too much of a risk to lift their own mandates at this point. Royal Oak’s Alchemi executive chef and owner Johnny Prepolec doesn’t see how it would be possible to certify people who are actually vaccinated.

“If there was an issue and they weren’t actually vaccinated, that could be a liability for us,” he said. “It has been a very challenging period of time for restaurants. We are not in a position to take a lot of risks right now.”

Employees will continue to wear masks, he said.

“I want to send a message to my customer that, hey, we are doing our best to protect them,” Prepolec said.

Several businesses said Friday afternoon they were still considering how to respond or were seeking legal advice.

Anticipating loosening restriction, CrossFit 8 Mile in Livonia had polled its 140 members on how they felt four weeks ago. Of the 95% who responded, 70% had been vaccinated and 85% said they are ready to take off the masks, owner Nick Carignan said. The gym already allows members to take off their masks once they are in their own socially distanced workout zone.

“It’s the other 15%,” he said. “It’s more so I don’t want to divide people into if you’re vaccinated or not. I don’t want anybody to feel like they are being punished for their choice to not do the vaccination.”

Orangetheory Fitness Michigan, which owns eight Orangetheory gyms in greater Metro Detroit, will allow members who are two weeks past receiving their second shot to use the facility without a mask.

“Members who are not vaccinated should continue to wear masks,” said Lucy Babcock, regional fitness director at Orangetheory Fitness Michigan. “We believe in the CDC recommendations, and we believe that our members trust the recommendations, and we are going go with those recommendations.”

With guidance from the national corporate offices, the company has decided it will not require proof of vaccination. In the past, the gyms have not had challenges with members complying to the mask mandate, Babcock said.

“Our top priority is to get our members into class and keep our member safe,” Babcock added.


Staff Writers Beth LeBlanc and David Goricki contributed.