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Michigan Gov. Whitmer extends COVID-19 pause through Dec. 20

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration extended on Monday the closure of some Michigan businesses, the halt on indoor dining at restaurants and the suspension of in-person instruction at high schools through Dec. 20 as COVID-19 surges on.

The Democratic governor announced the 12-day extension during a Monday afternoon press briefing, drawing criticism from Republican lawmakers and business groups that wanted the most intrusive of the current restrictions lifted. The initial three-week "Pause to Save Lives" order was originally set to end at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.

The expiration date is now 11:59 p.m. Dec. 20, five days before Christmas. But Whitmer is already discouraging people from gathering for the holiday.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, said coronavirus infection rates remain "alarmingly high." And Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the state is experiencing a "surge" in deaths tied to the virus.

"Hope is on the horizon, but we need an additional 12 days to determine the full impact of the Thanksgiving holiday on our efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus," Whitmer said. "This is all about protecting our families and front-line workers until we eradicate this virus once and for all."

There were 3,764 adults hospitalized in Michigan on Friday with confirmed cases of the coronavirus, a total that was up 31% from three weeks earlier. Some hospitals have reported being at or near capacity in recent days.

Under the extension, bars and restaurants must remain closed for dine-in service but can remain open for outdoor dining, carry-out and delivery.Colleges, universities and high schools will continue to go without in-person instruction, and high school sports will continue to be suspended. Casinos, movie theaters and group exercise classes will stay closed through Dec. 20 as two Detroit casinos reported in November they would lay off or furlough more than 2,700 employees combined.

The state should have taken "a more nuanced approach" that allows for limited indoor capacity with a curfew, said Justin Winslow, the president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, which last week had its request for a preliminary injunction against the ban rejected by a Grand Rapids federal judge. Such a policy would result in greater compliance, better health outcomes and substantially reduced economic fallout, he argued. 

"The restaurant industry is comprised of creative and resilient individuals, but for a growing number of them, this latest pause is the cause of their lost livelihood and well-being," Winslow said.

Republicans also bashed the 12-day extension. State Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, contended that small businesses hadn't been provided "the clear criteria or safety protocols necessary to reopen."

"We need to stay safe, yet people should have the opportunity to work and provide for their families," Nesbitt said. "Watching small businesses continue to go bankrupt through no fault of their own is heartbreaking.”

Hospitals seek extension

On Nov. 15, Whitmer announced the original three-week epidemic order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to temporarily close movie theaters and bowling alleys, stop indoor dining at restaurants and bars and suspend in-person instruction at high schools and colleges. The order took effect on Nov. 18.

The Michigan Health and Hospital Association, which represents hospitals, urged the state on Monday to extend the three-week pause through the holidays, arguing that the closure of indoor restaurant dining and in-person high school classes is "slowly stabilizing the spread of COVID-19 and leading to stabilized hospitals."

"To see meaningful change that truly alleviates stress on the healthcare system, we urge the state to extend protections through the holiday season," the hospital association said in a statement.

When it comes to potentially lifting restrictions, major consideration has to be given to how to keep the health care system from crashing, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in an interview last week. Sharfstein is an expert Whitmer has consulted previously.

In November, the state worried that it was on track for 100 deaths per day by Christmas, but even with the three-week pause that concern has become a reality, Whitmer said Monday.

“We are already sadly above that mark, and that means our progress is fragile and we cannot let up yet,” she said.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a press conference on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. She announced a 12-day extension of the state's "Pause to Save Lives."

There are some positive signs in Michigan's COVID-19 data. The state reported 45,015 new infections last week, the second straight week with a decrease in new cases. Through the week of Nov. 15-21, Michigan had experienced 10 straight weeks with rising weekly case totals. 

Restaurant impact

Business groups have called on the governor to ease or lift her three-week order after Tuesday to avoid further economic problems in the state.

When she announced the three-week "Pause to Save Lives," the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association said it would lead to a "catastrophic economic fallout." The organization has unsuccessfully challenged the order in court.

The impact of an "extended shutdown" will be significant, Winslow, the restaurant association's president, said Monday. The industry lost over $8 billion in sales and laid off more than 75% of its workforce when it was shuttered for an extended period in the spring, he added.

Two of Detroit's three casinos, MotorCity Casino and MGM Grand Detroit, issued public notices in November, indicating they would be laying off thousands of employees. MGM's notice said 1,561 workers would be affected, while MotorCity said 1,205 employees would be be converted from furloughs to layoffs if the "pause" were extended past Tuesday.

"Our sincere hope continues to remain that this layoff is temporary, but in light of the increased severity of the pandemic, the public health emergency, and our required government imposed closure, we are unable to say that the layoffs may not last more than six months or may be permanent for at least some portion of our employees," wrote Laura Lee, chief human resources officer for MGM Resorts International.

What future looks like

The state will measure progress throughout the continued pause based on the percentage of hospital beds filled with COVID-19 patients, the number of cases and positivity rate, said Gordon, who officially signed the new epidemic order. 

“Let me be clear, there’s no formula,” Gordon said, noting the cases don’t measure other elements such as the age of those infected.

The state's health director has been issuing epidemic orders after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in early October that a 1945 emergency powers law that Whitmer was using for her COVID-19 directives was unconstitutional.

Gordon said the state will prioritize reopening high schools "because of their unique value for kids, for our families, for our future." Asked about high schools, Gordon and Whitmer both said the focus is on getting kids back in classrooms first.

"That is paramount," Whitmer said.

After high schools, the administration will next look at places where someone can consistently wear a mask, such as movie theaters, bowling alleys and casinos.

"If the numbers in these areas that he articulated are going down and in the judgment of our medical professionals we can re-engage, we will do so, but not in one fell swoop,” Whitmer said.

cmauger@detroitnews.com