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As Michigan gradually reopens, Whitmer cautions state won't 'be filling stadiums this fall'

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

The Michigan economy is in the process of a slow, incremental re-opening, but Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is pumping the brakes on hopes professional sports leagues will be able to pack the stands in the coming months. 

In a wide-ranging interview with the Mojo in the Morning show Tuesday morning, Whitmer noted the state is not close to that level of normalcy in its ongoing measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Lions and other NFL teams could rely on TV money to offset the loss in attendance revenue.

"I think you can talk to your kids and say these are things we know, these are the unknowns, but we’re making progress," Whitmer said. "There is reason to feel some confidence here, but we also have to (temper) their expectations and say, ‘Life is going to be different.’ We’re not going to be filling stadiums this fall."

Last week, Whitmer detailed a six-phase plan to restart Michigan's economy. Within that, large gatherings are included in in the final, "post-pandemic" phase. At that point in the plan, community spread of the virus is not expected to return because of sufficient immunity and/or an established treatment. 

Meanwhile, the NFL has continued to push forward through its offseason and remains publicly optimistic about the 2020 season after releasing its schedule last week. And despite Whitmer's plan, the Detroit Lions are still preparing to play home games in front of fans at Ford Field.

"The Detroit Lions are following the NFL’s lead in preparing to play a full 2020 season in front of fans," the team said in a statement. "Given the evolving circumstances surrounding COVID-19, contingencies are needed and will be in place. We are evaluating all facets of the game day experience, and will do what is required to maintain a safe and healthy environment at Ford Field where our fans can feel comfortable."

It remains unclear whether that means a partially full stadium. In an interview with NBC Sports last week, Dr. Antony Fauci, the immunologist who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and has been a leading voice on the pandemic as a member of President Donald Trump's coronavirus task force, suggested limited capacity sporting events remain a possibility. 

"If the virus is so low that even in the general community the risk is low, then I could see filling a third of the stadium or half the stadium so people could be six feet apart," Fauci said. "I mean, that’s something that is again feasible depending on the level of infection. I keep getting back to that: It’s going to depend. Like, right now, if you fast forward, and it is now September. The season starts. I say you can’t have a season — it’s impossible. There’s too much infection out there. It doesn’t matter what you do. But I would hope that by the time you get to September it’s not gonna be the way it is right now."

The Miami Dolphins already have plans that would include limited attendance to 15,000 in the team's 65,000-seat venue, with staggered entrance and exit strategies for fans, to limit contact. 

Michigan continued in Phase 3 of Whitmer's plan this week, with several "low-risk" businesses resuming operation. Those include construction, manufacturing and real estate. The Big 3 automakers are expected to come back online next week. 

The design of the steps, according to Whitmer, is avoiding a dreaded second spike in the outbreak. 

"We have to listen to the science and continue to take action to keep from a second wave happening," Whitmer said. "Because I’m telling you right now that if you look at what happened in 1918, and you really see that places abandoned social distancing too fast got in worse trouble.

"As tough as this has been, we don’t want to be doing this again in August or September or October," Whitmer continued. "That’s what all the epidemiology and all the experts say is a very real threat. That’s why doing this slowly, everyone doing their part and being patient as we take these steps forward – we’re going to keep moving forward. The timeline is going to be dictated by how Michiganders do their part. We’ve done a good job now and if we keep doing that we’re going to be (economically) re-engaged in the next couple months. If we abandon things and stop practicing social distancing and stop wearing masks, we might have to move backward a phase and I don’t want to have to do that. I don’t think anyone in our state does."

A second wave of the H1N1 pandemic in 1918 was spurred by the end of World War I and the victory celebrations that followed in the United States. In total, the virus was estimated to have killed between 17-50 million. 

As of Wednesday morning, COVID-19 had infected more than 4 million around the world, resulting in nearly 300,000 deaths. In the United States alone, 83,558 deaths have been attributed to the virus with Michigan's 4,674 the fourth-most among states.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers