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Gov. Whitmer: More 'aggressive' reopening steps possible after Jan. 1

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she's "hopeful" that her administration can take "more aggressive steps" to lift restrictions on some Michigan businesses after Jan. 1 as the state's COVID-19 metrics continue to trend in a positive direction.

The Democratic governor said the so-called "pause" on indoor dining at bars and restaurants and at other places people gather is working. However, she cautioned that events and gatherings connected to the Christmas and New Year's holidays could spread the virus if people drop their guards.

"We're hopeful that Michiganders do what we did over Thanksgiving, didn't travel as much, didn't gather as much, didn't contribute to as much spread," Whitmer said. "And if that's the case, we could take more aggressive steps to reengage right after the first of the year.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer takes questions during an interview with Capitol reporters on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.

"And that's what I'm hopeful happens. But it's too early to prejudge it. We want to see a little longer trajectory."

Whitmer made the comments Tuesday afternoon during a year-end question-and-answer session with state reporters. The event came four days after her administration extended the ban on indoor dining at bars and restaurants through Jan. 15.

In the same order, Robert Gordon, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, allowed in-person instruction at high schools to begin again and permitted casinos, cinemas, bowling alleys and stadiums to reopen this week with restrictions on capacity and concessions.

Through the "Pause to Save Lives," Whitmer's administration suspended in-person instruction at high schools and closed other businesses Nov. 18 amid surging COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

But last week, Michigan reported its lowest weekly new case total and its lowest percentage of coronavirus tests bringing positive results since the end of October. Likewise, on Monday, the state tracked 2,865 hospitalized adults with confirmed cases of COVID-19, a 24% decrease from the total two weeks earlier.

Michigan now finds itself in a "much stronger" position than neighboring states, Whitmer said Tuesday.

"When you look at where we are, I think it's very clear that the pause is working," she said, adding, "We all get credit for that because it doesn't happen with one person doing the right thing. It happens when the majority does."

Struggling restaurants are "continually on my mind," Whitmer said, noting she urged state lawmakers to provide assistance for them. The Republican-controlled Legislature has sent her a $465 million supplemental spending bill that includes more than $55 million in small business survival grants.

Restaurants are places where people gather indoors without masks, and studies have shown they are where "a lot of spread is occurring," she said.

"We want them to survive. It stinks. I would give anything not to be in this position," Whitmer said. "This is where we are. We have to follow the science so we can get our COVID numbers down and then, ultimately, we can get reengaged."

On Tuesday, Whitmer's administration announced other initiatives aimed at helping restaurants and bars, including another liquor buyback program and providing eligible food assistance recipients the opportunity to use their benefits to purchase restaurant meals.

Earlier this year, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission bought back about $3.4 million in spirits from 673 liquor licensees, according to the governor's office. The administration will take a similar action this winter to support bars and restaurants.

"We are thankful for these programs because any kind of assistance helps our struggling industry,” said Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association. “Our number one goal is to get businesses open, which is why we urge Michiganders to do everything they can to end this pandemic.”

cmauger@detroitnews.com