Whitmer officials require teen sports testing, raise fan limits at outdoor stadiums

Lansing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration will allow crowds of up to 20% of capacity limits at outdoor stadiums and will impose new testing requirements for youth sports as Michigan experiences jumps in COVID-19 cases. 

Michigan health officials have issued a new epidemic order requiring rapid testing for all youth athletes ages 13-19 beginning April 2, a mandate that will apply to winter sports that are still being played and upcoming spring sports for middle schoolers through high schoolers. It also applies to club sports like Little League.

The state Department of Health and Human Services officials said they would issue new testing protocols on Saturday that will address frequency of testing and other requirements for middle and high school athletes. 

The testing requirement was prompted because Michigan is experiencing increasing cases among individuals ages 10 to 19, who have the highest current case rate and faster growth than other age groups, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported this week. 

In January and February, local health departments identified 315 outbreaks associated with sports teams, including club, school and recreational teams, Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said in a Friday press briefing.

"This is concerning," Khaldun said. "Outbreaks in this age group have an impact on our children's education. The most important thing we all want for our children is to have in-person learning."

She added that the testing plan will help identify cases as quickly as possible and prevent future outbreaks. The updated order from the Department of Health and Human Services says that beginning April 2, gatherings for sports practice and competition involving persons age 13 to 19 are prohibited unless all such persons participate in a testing program. The change requires youth athletes to take part "in a weekly testing program," Khaldun said.

The testing requirement will affect less than 2,000 high school winter sports athletes statewide, Michigan high School Athletic Association Executive Director Mark Uyl said Friday. Uyl said he didn’t have answers for many questions, like how often basketball players would need to be tested. 

The updated epidemic order was released Friday morning amid climbing COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in the state. Khaldun said the state is "potentially" at the beginning of another surge.

The new order means that the Detroit Tigers can accommodate more than 8,200 fans for its April 1 home opener and succeeding games, up from the 1,000 fans under the old order that allowed less than 3% of Comerica Park's capacity.

"Michigan's path forward out of the COVID pandemic is clear," Whitmer said Friday. "We have to keep masking up. We've got to ramp up testing. And we're going to invest billions in federal funds from the Biden administration to help small businesses, support working families and get our kids back in school.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun provid an update regarding COVID-19 vaccines and variants and announced new steps for high school athletes to safely compete and increased capacity at outdoor stadiums, Friday, March 19, 2021.

"And we've got to get vaccinated as soon as it's available to you."

The Tigers had said they anticipated the attendance cap would be raised. The Whitmer administration’s order puts it in line with Pennsylvania, where the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates are allowed up to 20% capacity.  Among other nearby states, Ohio is allowing the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians to have up to 30% capacity, while Wisconsin and Minnesota are allowing the Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins to have 25% capacity.

Comerica Park can seat 41,083 fans, so a 20% capacity limit means the Tigers could accommodate up to 8,217 fans.

Tiger infielder Jeimer Candelario said he is "I'm really excited" more fans will watch the games.

"The fans in Detroit deserve this, and I would say we're going to enjoy it and try to put on a really good show for them," Canadelario said. "It's a blessing to have fans in the stands cheering for us and have their support."

Tigers Manager A.J. Hinch was thrilled as well.

"We're showing down here we can play in front of fans and do it safely," Hinch said Friday. "We've got a lot of work to do to insure that continues, but what a great breath of fresh air for us to know Tigers fans are going to get to come to the ballpark and enjoy some normalcy as we build back to completely normal, hopefully sometime this summer."

Five Republican state lawmakers held a Monday press conference at Comerica Park where they had urged Whitmer to increase attendance caps.

"We need to start celebrating life," state Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, who wanted to raise Comerica Park's Opening Day capacity to at least 50%. "Gov. Whitmer, for God's sake, just let us have fun for once."

At the Friday morning press conference, Whitmer also said fully vaccinated individuals will be able to participate in residential gatherings with other fully vaccinated individuals without wearing a mask to ensure consistency with guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Today's action is an important step towards normalcy, but there's still more work to do," the governor said. "As always, mask up, maintain social distancing and wash your hands. We all have a personal responsibility to slow the spread of the virus so we can end this pandemic together."

Last week, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported 11,383 new infections, a seven-week high. The 5.2% positivity rate — the percentage of diagnostic tests bringing positive results — marked a six-week high.

Hospitalizations are also increasing with 1,106 adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, according to state data.

Whitmer called the numbers a "reality check."

"We may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But we’re still in the tunnel," the governor said.

Meanwhile, Michigan continues to distribute vaccines. More than 3.3 million doses have been administered. About 15% of the state's adult population, 1.2 million residents, have received their complete vaccination.

Khaldun said Wednesday that she's hopeful Michigan can avoid the type of surges it experienced in 2020 when hospitals voiced concerns about their ability to service all of the sick people needing care.

“I still think we are at risk,” the chief medical executive cautioned. “And again, with these variants that are more easily transmitted and potentially, the vaccine is not as effective, still effective but potentially not as effective, for some of them."

Staff Writers David Goricki and Chris McCosky contributed.