As masks lift, Whitmer faces pressure to speed easing of COVID limits
Michigan restaurants and other tourism-dependent businesses are hoping Gov. Gretchen Whitmer eases up pandemic restrictions more quickly now that mask mandates have been lifted for the fully vaccinated. (Shutterstock)
Diners at the Coral Gables resort in Saugatuck were allowed to enter without their masks Saturday, and it was a “grand old time,” said owner Mike Johnson.
“They were really in a jolly mood,” Johnson said of his customers, who lined up for tables on the first day of business after Michigan ended its mask mandate for people who have been fully vaccinated. “I think they thought more restrictions were released than they really were.”
The restaurant complex of four indoor bars and three restaurants was still limited to just 100 people and had to close by the state-imposed 11 p.m. curfew, two of the ongoing state pandemic restrictions.
Johnson hopes the state’s capacity and curfew rules will also be gone by June. But at the current rate of vaccinations, that might not happen until mid-June or even later, according to a Bridge Michigan estimate based on current vaccination rates.
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That’s bad news for the Coral Gables, which gets 90 percent of its business from Michigan’s summer tourism, which unofficially begins in late May, around Memorial Day.
“If they don’t end by June 1, it’s seriously going to impact us,” Johnson said of remaining state restrictions.
Business leaders spent months seeking a roadmap to reopening from the state, but pressure is now mounting for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to rewrite her “Vacc to Normal plan,” which she just announced April 29.
If the plan isn’t changed — and businesses don’t fully reopen sooner — business leaders fear Michigan’s economy will suffer and businesses will remain at a disadvantage as other states lift remaining restrictions.
If the state sticks to its plan, it could be months before businesses like bars, restaurants, gyms and event venues can open to full capacity, far behind businesses in most other states.
“The plan is going to be difficult to hold together,” Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, told Bridge.
Michigan’s rules for reopening once called for people to stop wearing masks as the last step in the process. Instead, guidelines recommending the removal of mask requirements for the fully vaccinated were announced late last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a move followed by the state a day later.
“When the CDC changed the (mask) guidance, it really turned the Vacc to Normal plan upside down,” Calley said.
Given the pace of change across the U.S. as COVID-19 cases decline and states seek to emerge from the pandemic, “I don’t think that’s going to be the last time that’s going to happen… Michigan is going to have to move a lot faster.”
Whitmer’s reopening plan tied the easing of restrictions to hitting certain vaccination thresholds. At the time she announced it, nearly 230,000 Michigan residents 16 and older were getting their first dose each week.
But that weekly average has dropped by more than half, raising questions about how long it could take to hit the thresholds and remove the restrictions.
Once 60 percent of those 16 and older get at least one dose of the vaccine, the Whitmer plan calls for the removal of the bar and restaurant curfew and some capacity restrictions. As of Monday, 56.5 percent have gotten at least one dose yet the rate has only grown 1.5 percentage points in a week.
At that rate, it could be Memorial Day or later before the state hits 60 percent — and the restrictions aren’t removed until two weeks after that, according to the plan.
Demand for vaccinations has dropped across the state and appointments are no longer necessary in most places. The Federal Emergency Management Agency closed its mass vaccination clinic at Ford Field in Detroit on Monday, after eight weeks and over 240,000 vaccinations.
Without changes to the state’s rules, Michigan will remain an outlier just as the summer tourism season starts, prompting some to speculate the state will probably alter the plan.
“I would guess that the goalposts are probably moving,” said Brad Hershbein, an economist with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research who has studied the pandemic’s economic impact. He said the business and political pressure will likely mount to make changes.
“And if case rates keep dropping, they’ll scrap the whole thing,” Hershbein said.
The Whitmer administration did not respond to emails from Bridge Michigan on Monday asking if it was considering changes to the timetable for lifting restrictions.
The COVID-19 situation is improving markedly in Michigan and the nation, with case counts plummeting and hospitals treating far fewer COVID-19 patients every day. And more states are dropping restrictions.
For instance, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, initially said he wouldn’t remove restrictions until there were just 50 new cases per 100,000 over a 14-day period. But he abruptly abandoned that plan last week when there were still 123 cases per 100,000 and said the state would drop most constraints June 2.
Colorado, which has a Democratic governor and just passed Michigan in having the nation’s highest COVID case rate, dropped most of its restrictions Friday, just after the CDC issued its mask guidance.
Michigan might not hit the next hurdle — 65 percent vaccinated, which lifts capacity restrictions on restaurants and businesses — until late July or even August.
Waiting until then “is going to be devastating,” said Johnson, the Coral Gables owner. He’s urging people to get the vaccine.
Michael Van Beek, director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market oriented think tank, said Michigan’s restrictions, even if eventually lifted, could impact tourism season in the state.
People deciding where to spend their vacation dollars might not want to go to a state where they think it could be hard to get into a restaurant or where the bars close at 11 p.m. “Even if the state opens up, it might not be enough because the narrative is already that Michigan is more restrictive,” Van Beek said.
That’s been the experience at the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, said CEO Claude Molinari.
Conventions and group business haven’t recovered to 2019 levels, which were estimated to be worth $300 million in direct spending to the metro Detroit economy, but some activity is starting to happen across the county. Other convention cities that currently have looser restrictions are able to attract more interest.
“We’re behind in our selling for the future because they had the advantage,” Molinari said.
The Detroit CVB is approaching Whitmer’s administration about dropping the Vacc to Normal timeline for event venues. Instead of going to 25 percent capacity at 60 percent vaccinated, it’s seeking 50 percent capacity on June 1 and 75 percent capacity by July 1.
“As the stages of the pandemic change and the federal and national guidelines and restrictions change, we have to adapt,” Molinari said.
One sign of rapid change in Michigan’s COVID policy comes from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency that regulates workplace safety.
Before Monday, the agency told Michigan employers they must follow regulations that now conflict with CDC guidance on masks, distancing requirements and workplace sanitation. It also had been seeking to make some of the changes permanent, according to SBAM.
On Monday, MIOSHA COVID-19 Workplace Safety Director Sean Egan said the department will change the rules for employers, including those who will be bringing workers back to offices when restrictions are lifted on in-person work on May 24.
“MIOSHA will soon post updated workplace rules reflecting the CDC’s recent guidance on face masks for fully vaccinated people,” Egan said in a statement.
Meanwhile, COVID case declines in Michigan last summer (before COVID vaccines were available) suggest the coming weeks are a good time to follow CDC guidelines and the examples of other states and ease restrictions, Calley said. That also could help revenue among struggling businesses in resort towns.
“The majority of businesses that are most restricted are small businesses,” Calley said. “And in industries dominated by smaller businesses. The sooner (lifting capacity restrictions) starts, the sooner that we’ll get to a full recovery.”
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