Gov. Whitmer's officials ease COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants, nursing homes

Craig Mauger Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration issued wide-ranging epidemic orders on Tuesday that will ease COVID-19-related restrictions on businesses, nursing homes and other gatherings, a move the governor described as "good news" for Michigan.

The new policies come amid a decline in weekly coronavirus cases and deaths in the past seven weeks, but right after the state experienced its first weekly increase in cases since early January. They will allow larger outdoor events to resume, double capacity limits at restaurants from 25% to 50% and move the curfew for indoor dining from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. starting on Friday and running through April 19.

The new orders will also relax capacity limits on retail stores, moving them from 30% to 50%. The limitation on indoor household gatherings will go from 10 people from two households to 15 people from three households. Those orders also take effect on Friday and run for six weeks.

The latest directives allow family members who test negative for COVID-19 immediately to visit relatives in a nursing home as long as the facility has not had a new COVID-19 case in the last 14 days, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The visitation order marks the first time since early in the pandemic that nursing homes across the state have been open for visits. Previously, visitation allowances had depended on COVID-19 metrics showing low risk within a given county.

"I am proud that we can take this positive step without compromising public health,” Whitmer said during a press conference.

The changes are significant because they boost businesses during a pandemic that's hurt many financially and they show the Whitmer's administration growing optimism about the fight against a virus that's altered Michiganians' lives for nearly a year. Michigan is receiving its largest vaccine shipment with nearly 500,000 doses expected to arrive this week, including 82,700 doses of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine.

"We’re getting there, Michigan," Whitmer said. "This is good news."

The announcement came a day after the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said she was "really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures that we have recommended," according to the Associated Press.

But Michigan Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, have been calling for the Democratic governor to ease restrictions more quickly.

"Today’s announcement by Gov. Whitmer is woefully inadequate, ensures we remain completely out of step regionally and nationally, and will drive more Michiganders out of their jobs and out of our state," Shirkey said Tuesday.

Eateries welcome move with caveat

Much of the tension has focused on restaurants, which were allowed to reopen indoor dining after a 75-day suspension on Feb. 1 with a 25% capacity limit. But they have been among some of the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic.

In Metro Detroit last week, Andiamo Dearborn announced its closure after 17 years in business. The popular Corktown restaurant Lady of the House has closed. And the Library Sports Pub and Grill in Novi will close March 28 after 25 years in business.

Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, said his group welcomed the new order but was concerned about its length of six weeks.

"We are hopeful that this DHHS Order represents a paradigm shift in the administration’s overall approach to the hospitality industry, accepting that the dramatically reduced hospitalization rate and increased vaccine distribution mean our most vulnerable populations are protected and that reopening should advance in a timely manner," Winslow said.

Previous estimates from the Michigan restaurant industry group said the pandemic and the shutdowns associated with it have led to 3,000 restaurant closures in the state.

“It's a big deal to get these machines turned back on. … People in Lansing do not understand,” said Aaron F. Belen, owner of The Morrie, a food, drinks and music venue with Royal Oak and Birmingham locations. “I have millions of dollars invested in this.”

The Morrie’s two locations have been closed since November. Before Tuesday’s move to increase restaurant capacity, Belen decided to reopen the Royal Oak location on Thursday and the Birmingham location on March 12.

Aaron Belen -- the owner of The Morrie, a restaurant and music venue in Royal Oak -- said Michigan's move to allow 50% capacity in restaurants is welcome but still doesn't do enough to help his business.

“I'm happy we’re at 50% but I didn’t build out my facilities or my business model to have a 50% capacity and a 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. curfew,” Belen said. “It’s a losing proposition for me. Live music venues, concert halls … no one can make any money.

"We're not selling software. We're not in some 300% margin business. We are in a low margin, expensive business.”

Last week was the first week since early January that Michigan's new COVID-19 infection total increased. The state reported 7,662 new cases last week, up from 5,695 the week prior. The numbers remain much lower than the peak of the second surge that hit at the end of 2020.

Michigan reported its first cases of the coronavirus on March 10. As of Monday, the state had tallied 590,217 cases and 15,558 deaths linked to the virus.

More than 2.2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administrated in Michigan through Sunday, including 1.4 million first doses, according to state data.

"We continue to monitor the data closely, and based on current trends we are taking another step toward normalcy," said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services. "We urge Michiganders to continue doing what works and wearing a mask, washing their hands and avoiding crowds."

Hertel signed the epidemic orders that were announced Tuesday.

Gathering limits increased

The policies also increase the limit on indoor non-residential gatherings where people interact across households to 25 people. The limit was previously 10 individuals. Outdoor residential gatherings can include up to 50 people. 

Exercise facilities can operate at 30% capacity instead of 25% capacity starting Friday through April 19.

The increase in capacity at exercise centers, including yoga studios, will allow Kacee Must, owner of Citizen Yoga, to add one to two people to the classes she offers. Citizen Yoga has locations in Bloomfield, Detroit and Royal Oak. 

Adding one more person may not sound like a lot, but Must said, “One more person is one more person.”

“The rebuild phase for a lot of us is presenting different challenges because people aren't used to inconveniencing themselves to come out of their house to go exercise,” she said. “Part of the power and the beauty of group exercise is feeling like you're in a community, so as she opens up capacity it's not just that we can have more people in the studio.

Instructor Jamie Oldfield, front, and Danita Kwiatkowski record a yoga class at Citizen Yoga, in Royal Oak, March 1, 2021. The new state order will allow the yoga sites to add another person or two to a class, said owner Kacee Must, whose locations also offer on-demand and live virtual classes in place of an in-person experience.

"…The more people we can get in a room, the more people remember what it feels like to have that good sense of: ‘Oh wow, this is worth a little inconvenience for a lot of connection.’”

In another move, outdoor non-residential gatherings where people interact across households will be allowed up to 300 people, which enables "larger outdoor events to resume," according to the state health department. The limit on outdoor non-residential gatherings was previously 25.

Casinos will be allowed to increase capacity from 15% to 30% and retailers will be able to increase capacity to 50%.

For the entertainment industry, the new order allows indoor stadiums and arenas to have 375 people if seating capacity is under 10,000 and 750 people if seating capacity is over 10,000. Outdoor entertainment and recreational facilities may host up to 1,000 patrons.

The order retains rules prohibiting workers from going into work if their jobs can be done from home. It also maintains a ban on night clubs and venues where people may have close contact without masks, such as water parks. 

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.