Whitmer rescinds Michigan's gathering, mask rules starting Tuesday

Lansing — Michigan's remaining restrictions on gatherings and masks will be dropped next week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday, ending 15 months of broad limits on businesses and indoor activities in the state.

Under the changes that take effect Tuesday, maximum indoor capacity limits will increase to 100%, and the state's mask mandate for non-vaccinated people will be removed 10 days earlier than the original goal of July 1. Indoor capacity currently is capped at 50%.

The decision marks the removal of the most significant remaining pandemic rules as infection rates plummet and the percentage of Michigan residents protected by vaccines continues to increase. The Tuesday changes will occur 469 days after the state reported its first COVID-19 cases.

“We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the medical experts and health professionals who stood on the front lines to keep us all safe," Whitmer said in a statement. "And we are incredibly thankful to all of the essential workers who kept our state moving."

Other orders being rescinded, effective Tuesday, also include those governing entry into congregate care and juvenile justice facilities.

Some orders remaining in place include those protecting individuals in long-term care facilities, prisons and jails as well as mandated COVID-positive reporting requirements at schools and prisons. Michigan's rules for long-term care facilities, agricultural housing and prisons largely involve testing protocols and record-keeping requirements for staff and residents.

The Whitmer administration expects to release updated guidance for students and staff at schools next week. 

"Our top priority going forward is utilizing the federal relief funding in a smart, sustainable way as we put Michigan back to work and jump-start our economy," the governor said. "We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure that Michigan’s families, small businesses and communities emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever before.”  

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Restaurants, diners react

Michigan's hospitality industry celebrated the announcement and expressed the hope that federal relief dollars would be invested strategically to help the industry. 

"The hospitality industry received transcendent news today that will finally move it past 463 days of closure, capacity restrictions and elevated regulatory scrutiny that forced more than 1 in 6 Michigan restaurants to close their doors for good," said Justin Winslow, president and CEO for the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. "The challenges ahead remain daunting for many, but this industry is resilient, adaptive and ready to meet this newfound opportunity head-on." 

Diners and patrons in Royal Oak were lukewarm in their reaction to Whitmer’s announcement to open establishments, including restaurants and bars, to full capacity. Some said they had already been going out to restaurants with masks and will continue to use them even when dining rooms across the state open to 100%.

Harold Hill, who was getting a takeout order Thursday at Bigalora restaurant on Main Street, applauded Whitmer “for protecting the public” and keeping it well-informed.

From left, Mike Scudder of Oxford, Tom Dong of Canton, Bill Wayland of Grosse Pointe Woods and Larry Breskin of Grosse Pointe Park dine at Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina in Royal Oak on Thursday. Wayland said he welcomed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's decision to open restaurants to full capacity and drop the mask requirement, but indicated he will still keep his mask handy.

Hill, an Oak Park resident, said he’s already been dining out and hasn’t missed a beat in his dining experience. He says he’s done it wearing a mask, which he will continue to do.

He said he doesn’t believe he will be alone.

“I think people are still going to be safe,” said Hill as he was getting food in between working. “I haven’t seen many restaurants that are packed.”

Bill Wayland of Grosse Pointe Woods welcomed the governor’s decision but said restaurants need to pay workers what they are worth.

“Opening up more is going to really increase the economy," Wayland said. 

'Almost fully ... liberated'

Michigan's COVID-19 infection rates have been declining for about eight weeks after they surged in late March and April. The state led the nation in new cases per population for longer than a month.

But warmer temperatures that have pushed more activities outdoors and increasing vaccination coverage has spurred infection numbers to plummet. Last week, the state reported 1,786 new cases, the third-lowest weekly count since March 2020 and the lowest total in nearly a year.

The percentage of tests for the virus bringing positive results fell below 2%. Earlier in the pandemic, the state's goal was 3%. As of Wednesday, the state reported 417 adults hospitalized with COVID-19, a 66% drop from three weeks earlier.

The changing numbers have increased pressure to more quickly ease the remaining restrictions, as other states have done, including California and New York.

Whitmer's announcement is not only good news for Michigan residents, "but also a testament to the effectiveness of the vaccine," said Dr. Pino Colone, president of the Michigan State Medical Society. 

“With that said, we owe a great deal of gratitude to all the health professionals who have stood on the front lines administering shots in an effort to keep us safe, and a sincere ‘thank you’ to the millions of Michigan residents who have acted responsibly and gotten vaccinated," Colone said. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, argued Thursday's announcement should have come sooner.

"I am delighted, finally, that Michigan citizens are almost fully released and liberated," Shirkey said.

On May 20, Whitmer announced plans to end statewide mandates on July 1 and, for the most part, bring life "back to normal" ahead of the Fourth of July holiday. Michigan has been under different levels of emergency orders on gatherings and businesses for about 15 months. The first COVID-19 cases were reported here on March 10, 2020.

The state's June 1 epidemic order from the Department of Health and Human Services generally limited indoor crowds at businesses and restaurants to 50% of normal capacity constraints and required non-vaccinated individuals to wear masks at indoor gatherings. The order was initially scheduled to expire on July 1.

As of Tuesday, about 61% of Michigan's adult population, age 16 and older, had received at least their initial dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Half of the state's adult population is fully vaccinated.

Joyce Peterson of Troy, left, eats with her husband, Joe Peterson, at Tom's Oyster Bar in Royal Oak on Thursday. Joyce Peterson said: "I'm slow to readjust," indicating it was her second time eating out at a restaurant since the pandemic began.

Dale Johnson, who dined at Tom’s Oyster Bar on Main in Royal Oak, said Whitmer’s decision to open restaurants and bars to full capacity is great, but he still prefers to eat outdoors because he fears a much-stronger variant of COVID-19 might be around.

New forms of COVID-19 that are more contagious and potentially cause more serious illness have emerged in Michigan, but overall cases have continued to decline.

Johnson, a Royal Oak resident, said he just moved to Michigan from San Francisco, where he said most residents have tried to pursue safeguards, including vaccinations, in a bid to lower COVID-19 cases.

Johnson said he will continue to eat at restaurants where he has the option of eating outdoors.

“I don’t have a great need to eat indoors,” Johnson said. “I think we need to still be on watch for six months. It’s all about the science. We don’t know about the other variations (of the virus) yet.”