LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is allowing restaurants, bars, retail stores and offices to reopen with new restrictions by Friday in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula in time for the Memorial Day weekend..
Whitmer announced changes to her stay-at-home order on Monday afternoon during a press conference in Lansing, outlining relaxed regulations for 32 northern Michigan counties, including those around Traverse City and Marquette.
“Some regions of the state have just not been hit as hard by COVID-19, and they are in a better position to begin phasing in sectors of their economy,” the governor said in her daily press briefing.
Whitmer said she's "hopeful" her administration will be in position to announce "even more [economic] re-engagement later this week, ahead of the Memorial Day weekend."
The state’s chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, said other areas of the state are “not quite ready” yet.
Although the openings coincide with the traditional start of the summer tourism season in Michigan, Whitmer encouraged continued caution to help prevent a second wave of COVID-19, the virus that has caused 51,142 illnesses and 4,891 deaths in Michigan.
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The areas that are to reopen have had a small fraction of the state’s cases: 542 cases and 52 deaths as of Sunday.
“Keep your wits about you,” Whitmer said. “Let’s not all go rushing out and force a closure eventually. What we want to do is keep moving forward.”
Under the revised order, restaurants and bars in northern Michigan can only operate at 50 percent capacity, and all reopened businesses will be required to comply with additional public safety requirements for employees and the public.
Limited seating will mean a “new way of dining,” Whitmer said, recommending residents who dine out wear masks until they eat, wash their hands and keep six feet away from non-family members. “We’re going to be very careful, and we’re going to engage slowly.”
Local governments that “choose to take a more cautious course” still have the authority to implement their own restrictions on restaurants and bars, according to Whitmer’s office. For instance, cities, villages or townships could decide to only allow outdoor seating.
Still, residents in lower Michigan should “think long and hard before you take a trip into” the reopened regions, Whitmer said. “The whole state is watching to make sure we get this right.”
Traverse City Mayor Jim Caruthers said he hopes northern Michigan can be a "model for the rest of the state" on how to re-open safety but encouraged visitors to popular tourist towns to take extra precautions.
"Enjoy Traverse City," he said. "Come enjoy Petoskey, Charlevoix, Harbor Springs, Ludington — all the areas that we all love along the coast, but please be mindful that we're small towns with limited abilities to take care of you should you get sick."
"We'll do our part, but everybody needs to be mindful,” Caruthers said. “So do what's right and put on your mask and come and enjoy yourselves."
Bracing for uptick in cases
Whitmer's new order allows social gatherings of up to 10 people in northern Michigan but it does not open up hotels or other overnight lodgings, and it continues to prohibit vacation rentals.
Beginning Friday, child care providers in northern Michigan can expand operations to take care of children of waiters, waitresses and other employees going back to work.
While proponents of reopening celebrate the decision, Traverse Bay public health officials are bracing for an uptick in cases — something that a leader of the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department said is certain to happen once residents begin moving more freely.
“As we’re out and about in the community more, we will see more cases,” said Michelle Klein, the department's director of personal health.
“But also, we understand that this coronavirus is not going to go away, and that was never the goal [of the stay-home order.] The goal was to help us be more prepared in our health care systems to manage things as they came.”
Klein said Michiganders tempted to travel to Northern Michigan to patronize restaurants, bars and shops should consider staying home if they live in a part of the state that has a high COVID-19 case count. She urged those who travel to bring their own groceries, stay away from public venues, and “be very mindful that you could possibly be infected, and you don’t want to expose people up here.”
Matt Cozzens, co-owner of Traverse City’s 7 Monks Taproom, welcomed the news that the Traverse Bay region’s restaurants and bars could reopen for the weekend. Many businesses make the bulk of their annual revenue between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day.
“We had been counting it out,” Cozzins said. Now, he and his fellow Up North business owners will turn to the huge task of preparing their businesses to welcome customers with only a few days’ notice.
Cozzens said he and 7 Monks' co-owner, Jim Smolak, will first meet with staff members to make sure they are comfortable with reopening. But he hopes to be back open for dine-in service when the restrictions lift.
“People are ready to get back to a pseudo-normal way of life,” Cozzens said, “and do it responsibly and very cleanly.”
Criticism from Republicans
Leaders in Michigan's Republican-led Legislature – who sued Whitmer in a challenge to her emergency authority – have spent weeks urging the Democratic governor to speed up her economic recovery plan and adopt a regional approach.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said Monday he's "cautiously optimistic that the governor may be coming around to what we have known for some time, that our citizens are ready and able to safely resume daily life."
House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, called Whitmer's new order a "positive step" but added the "the vast majority of Michigan is still held captive in the nation’s worst lockdown."
State Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, welcomed the news but questioned why it hadn’t come sooner for the U.P., where public health officials have confirmed far fewer COVID-19 cases than other parts of the state. As of Sunday, four U.P. counties had not confirmed any cases and only one — Marquette — had confirmed more than 50 cases since mid-March.
“Keeping us shutdown when we weren’t [seeing] a lot of benefits from that shutdown was unnecessary damage,” said McBroom, who told Bridge the governor’s office had not briefed him on the plan or sought his input.
“I will certainly say thank you very much for whatever new freedom and relief the people up there can get as soon as possible,” he said. “We spent a lot of weeks begging for it.”
Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, said U.P. residents near Wisconsin had been flocking across the border to visit businesses that reopened in that state last week. And in Michigan, he said, customers flooded the Island Casino and Resort in Harris when the tribal casino opened Saturday.
“I’ve never seen the parking lot that packed,” he said of the casino, run by the Hannahville Indian Community. “The bars and restaurants and every other business across the river in Wisconsin have been 100-percent open... since Wednesday evening.”
LaFave has repeatedly called Whitmer “emperor” because of tight controls implemented during the coronavirus pandemic but said Monday he is “really happy, frankly,” to hear she plans to allow more businesses to reopen.
Whitmer's new order applies to businesses in the following northern lower Michigan counties: Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Crawford, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Presque Isle, Emmet. And the following Upper Peninsula counties: Gogebic, Ontonagon, Houghton, Keweenaw, Iron, Baraga, Dickinson, Marquette, Menominee, Delta, Alger, Schoolcraft, Luce, Mackinac, Chippewa.
Whitmer previously outlined a six-phase plan to begin re-opening the economy and grouped all 83 counties into phase three.
Her new order effectively moves northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula into the fourth phase, Whitmer said, even though her plan did not call for restaurant and bar re-openings until phase five.
Asked about that inconsistency, Whitmer suggested many local communities will only allow outdoor dining and said the state will "really work with the restaurants to make sure that they've got all the right protocols."
The governor told reporters she is basing economic decisions on both data and local "context," drawing a distinction between countywide spread and a COVID-19 outbreak within a facility that could be contained.
And Whitmer said she still wants to see more COVID-19 testing in northern Michigan, which she is nonetheless moving to reopen.
Marquette Mayor Jenna Smith said she was glad to hear the news, which she said would come as “a relief” for many Upper Peninsula residents who have been subject to the same restrictions as their downstate neighbors, even while confirmed cases of COVID-19 have remained far lower in the Upper Peninsula.
“I think the timing is right to take those considerations, and to slowly reopen,” Smith said.
Smith also expressed hope that residents remain “vigilant” while returning to restaurants, bars and stores. The same goes, she said, for downstaters who may take Whitmer’s announcement as a cue to return to their Up North cabins.
“If you do make the decision to travel, just take every precaution to keep yourself and others safe,” Smith said.
Although businesses may reopen, Smith said she expects many Yoopers to continue restricting their own movements.
“Just because business is opened back up doesn’t mean that every resident goes to 10 stores a week,” she said.