Gov. Whitmer administration: Plan is to reopen restaurants Feb. 1

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration said Wednesday its "working plan" is to begin allowing indoor dining at Michigan restaurants and bars on Feb. 1, which would be 75 days after the initial closure spurred by a surge in COVID-19 infections.

Robert Gordon, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, signed a new epidemic order that will ban indoor dining through Jan. 31. But beginning Saturday, the new policy will allow for indoor group exercise and non-contact sports that can be done with masks and social distancing.

Republicans and business leaders remain focused on the restaurant restriction, which they say should be lifted because the state's COVID-19 numbers have improved. Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, called for blocking appointments made by Whitmer until the ban stops.

But members of the Democratic governor's administration want to see continued trends downward in new infections, hospitalizations and the rate of tests bringing positive results.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a press conference in Lansing, Wednesday, January 13, 2020.

"Now is not the time to let down our guard,' Gordon said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference. “Our actions on Feb. 1 will depend on what happens with the pandemic between now and then.”

If restaurants do open 19 days from now, they will face capacity limitations and a curfew, state officials said. The specific requirements will be laid out in the coming days, the governor said.

"If numbers continue to head in the right direction, our hope is that we'll be able to resume indoor dining with strong safety measures in place on Feb. 1," Whitmer said.

There are more than 100,000 unemployed hospitality workers and thousands of small businesses "on the edge of bankruptcy," said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association.

"Michigan’s restaurants have been closed for more days than any other state since the onset of the pandemic and Michigan stands alone as the only remaining statewide closure of dining rooms without a discernible, data-driven path to reopen and fully reintegrate in the economy," Winslow said.

Republicans who control the Michigan Legislature also voiced renewed frustration Wednesday that indoor dining wasn't immediately reopened. Stamas, a restaurant owner himself, called for blocking the governor's appointees until more restrictions are lifted.

Stamas said he has spoken to restaurant employees who've been moved to tears because of concerns about their ability to provide for their families.

"I just think that we waited too long," he told The Detroit News.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said by setting the Feb. 1 plan, Whitmer has realized "she cannot sustain this continued abuse of families and their livelihoods."

"Today’s announcement is another display of the tone-deaf response we continue to hear from the governor," Shirkey said. "Overreach by the governor has crippled an entire industry and peripheral supply chain businesses."

But state health officials argued that the so-called "pause" on certain businesses that began Nov. 18 is working.

Michigan's COVID-19 metrics are in a significantly better position than they were in late November. Hospitalizations tied to the virus are trending downward, and last week, the rate of COVID-19 tests bringing positive results dropped to 8.9%. During the week of Nov. 29-Dec. 5, the rate hit 14.2%.

The state reported 21,955 new coronavirus cases last week. The total was up from the previous week but well below the 50,892 cases reported the week of Nov. 15-21, the week the governor initially closed indoor dining at bars and restaurants.

Michigan hit a lower peak than neighboring states and has fallen to the lowest case rate in the region, Gordon said Wednesday.

There are only four states in America that had a lower new case rate per population over the last week than Michigan, according to data tracked by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"As we reduce the number of cases, we also save lives," Gordon said.

Whitmer criticized Republicans in the Legislature for floating the idea of blocking her appointees to state boards, such as those who oversee universities. Her administration is working to reengage the restaurant sector of the economy, she said. They can still offer takeout possibilities and outdoor dining, the governor said.

"It's really dangerous and it's really irresponsible," Whitmer said of the "threats" from the Legislature. "I am hopeful that they don't intend to carry these through."

Michigan disclosed its first cases of COVID-19 on March 10. As of Wednesday, the state had reported 528,306 infections, 13,533 deaths linked to the virus and 415,079 people who have recovered.