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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer poised to further ease Michigan COVID restrictions

Gretchen Whitmer, Joneigh Khaldun
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan that tied easing state restrictions to higher vaccination rates has been undercut by recent guidance from the CDC on mask rules and improving COVID numbers in the state. (Bridge file photo)

July 27: CDC recommends indoor mask use. But don’t expect mandates in Michigan
June 22: Michigan drops COVID-19 safety restrictions in most workplaces
June 21: Michigan’s mask and capacity restrictions end Tuesday. What you need to know.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appears poised to further ease COVID-19 restrictions, again moving up her administration’s timetable to reopen more of the state’s economy.

A Whitmer spokesperson said Wednesday the administration would make an announcement this week or next on changes, essentially jettisoning earlier vaccination benchmarks she set just weeks ago.

“With the CDC recommending that fully vaccinated people can safely return to normal life, we feel confident that our state can begin taking even greater steps to get back to normal now that a majority of Michiganders have received their vaccine,” Bobby Leddy said in a statement. “I would expect an announcement in the coming days or week.”

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In late April, Whitmer tied the easing of pandemic restrictions to increased vaccinations. But with progress stalled on inoculations, it appeared it could be months before capacity limits, curfews and other restrictions could be lifted under Whitmer’s “Vacc to Normal” plan — even as COVID-19 cases plummet across the state.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending sweeping new mask guidelines last week — essentially saying the fully vaccinated could gather in most settings, even indoors, without masks  — the state’s capacity and curfew restrictions on bars, restaurants and offices were suddenly rendered confusing and, perhaps, obsolete, with strict mask rules effectively giving way to an honor system on vaccination status.

If the Democratic governor is set to ease restrictions, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and his fellow Republicans will be pleased, Shirkey spokesperson Abby Walls said.

“This office has been calling for an end to restrictions and to follow the clear data and science,” Walls said. “If the governor has finally decided to catch up, we’re glad for that.”

The news of impending change also comes as University of Michigan researchers, who work closely with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, now estimate the state may never get to its goal of 70 percent of adults 16 and older receiving at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

Whitmer had said all restrictions would cease two weeks after 70 percent of the adult population had received their first dose. Early on, public health officials had hoped to reach that mark by mid summer. 

But U-M researchers have radically altered their model as demand for vaccines waned. After earlier predicting Michigan would hit 70 on Aug. 1, the group’s new model projects just 59 percent getting the vaccine by that date. 

The U-M team, using state data, now estimates 53 percent of those 16 and over have currently gotten at least one dose of the vaccines from clinics or other facilities in Michigan. But those numbers don’t include residents who secured vaccines in other states, such as across the southern border in Ohio. (Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which does capture out-of-state vaccinations, shows 56.9 percent have gotten at least one dose.) 

If the U-M model proves true and Whitmer had stuck to her “Vacc to Normal” plan, the state’s businesses would have had to abide by restrictions throughout the summer, despite fewer and fewer new infections. Those restrictions, which included limiting capacity at bars, restaurants, banquet, conference and sport facilities, had been decried by Republicans and many in the business community who said it was unfairly restricting businesses still trying to recover from the pandemic.

When Whitmer announced the Vacc to Normal plan April 29, the state  was averaging just under 4,000 new COVID-19 cases every day and 11.2 percent of all coronavirus tests in the previous week had come back positive. Both numbers have come down significantly since then. 

As of Wednesday, the state is averaging just over 1,500 cases per day and 6.4 percent of tests in the past week have been positive. Hospitalizations have fallen from 3,284 COVID-19 patients on April 29 to 1,807 on Wednesday. 

Sergio Martinez-Beltrán contributed to this report

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