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Bridge Michigan
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This is it: Michigan to end gathering, mask restrictions on Tuesday

Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday said remaining distancing restrictions would end Tuesday, calling it “a day that we have all been looking forward to.” (Courtesy photo)

Aug. 4: Gov. Whitmer urges Michigan schools to mask up, stops short of mandate
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.

LANSING — Michigan is lifting the remaining major restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday, marking the first time in 15 months without limits on gatherings.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday announced that restaurants and venues can return indoor capacity to 100 percent on that day from 50 percent, citing rapid decreases in COVID-19 cases and increases in vaccines.

The state also will no longer require face masks in public or indoors.

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“Today is a day that we have all been looking forward to, as we can safely get back to normal day-to-day activities and put this pandemic behind us,” Whitmer said in a statement. “Thanks to the millions of Michiganders who rolled up their sleeves to get the safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine, we have been able to make these changes ahead of schedule.”

The current restrictions had been planned to end July 1. 

Infection rates have plummeted in recent weeks to levels not recorded since June 2020, long before the vaccines were introduced. There have been just 1,516 new COVID-19 cases in the past seven days, down a staggering 87 percent from a month ago when 11,749 cases were reported.

Far fewer people have been testing positive as well, with the state reporting as little as 1 percent of tests coming back positive — the lowest levels since the pandemic began in March 2020. 

Hospitalizations and deaths have fallen precipitously as well as the number of vaccinations has increased and the weather has warmed.

Meanwhile, an estimated 60.6 percent of all residents 16 and older have now gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. 

Whitmer has hinted for days that she would lift the restrictions earlier than scheduled.

The return to normal marks a significant turning point in the pandemic, which has been blamed for 19,598 deaths in the state, with over 893,000 people having contracted the disease. 

“After 15 months of uncertainty and a lot of fear, businesses are finally on the other side of the pandemic,” Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, told Bridge Michigan.

Fears over infections and restrictions enacted by the state triggered huge job losses, especially in the hospitality sector that was shuttered twice in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease.

According to the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, 3,000 restaurants in the state have permanently closed and 200,000 employees have been laid off due to the pandemic. Additionally, over half of the hotels in Michigan remain at risk of foreclosure. 

Justin Winslow, the CEO of the association, said Michigan’s restaurants and hotels are looking forward to a busy summer after the “burden” of restrictions.

“It’s critical for them,” he said.

But Rich Studley. President and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, questioned why businesses must continue to wait days for the lifting of restrictions.

“If it is a good idea,” Studley said, adding  he expects chamber members to ask, “why didn’t her decision take effect tomorrow? “

He called the decision a “positive step forward,” but that “for weeks and months now Gov. Whitmer has been slow-walking Michigan’s recovery.”

“Michigan is one of the last states in the country to have these very heavy, very severe restrictions.”

Months too late?

Whitmer’s restrictions have caused significant friction between her and the Republican-led Legislature, which sued the governor in May 2020 over her use of a 1945 law to issue restrictions on businesses and movement long after a state of emergency ended last year.

In October, the state Supreme Court sided with Republicans, but Whitmer’s administration continued to impose orders through the state health department.

One sticking point between Republicans and Whitmer was the use of metrics in making decisions about the pandemic. Whitmer said for months she was guided by science, but resisted setting clear parameters that Republicans sought for lifting restrictions.

On Thursday, after Whitmer announced the end of restrictions, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, told reporters he was “grateful, though it's months too late.”

In late April, Whitmer announced a plan to lift all restrictions once 70 percent of all Michigan residents were vaccinated, and the state is still well short of that goal.

Whitmer began accelerating the timeline to lift restrictions in late May, and has lifted more of them even though the state’s vaccination rate has slowed.

“I still think there needs to be a question of what was the goal actually?” Shirkey said. 

“Was the goal to reach a level of science and clinical-based immunity, or was the goal to achieve some artificial level of number of shots? That question is still unanswered.” 

The tug-of-war between Whitmer and Republicans has spilled over into numerous other functions of government, with GOP lawmakers this spring withholding billions of dollars in federal stimulus in an unsuccessful effort to win concessions from Whitmer on business restrictions. 

Whitmer said her top priority now is working with lawmakers to allocate the funds.

“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,” she said.

Bittersweet relief, lost sales

Businesses expressed relief at the announcement, glad the restrictions are lifted but lamenting that it should have been done earlier.

In Saugatuck, Mike Johnson said his Coral Gables bar and restaurant complex will gladly fill its 1,100-seat indoor capacity on weekends once the 50 percent cap is lifted next week. 

But he said he cannot make up the 30 percent in losses the business sustained during the pandemic

“That’s great,” Johnson said when told the restrictions were easing on June 22. “Every receipt counts. It really does.”

For months, Coral Gables and other restaurants and bars were either shuttered by state order or had limits on capacity and hours as Whitmer’s administration — like governors across the country — sought to limit the spread of COVID-19, which is most easily spread in close, sustained indoor gatherings.

Rich Glomb, managing partner of the Merri-Bowl bowling alley in Livonia, said lifting the restrictions in June will do little to help alleys during what are their slowest months.

Glomb said the burden of safety should have been put on customers, allowing 100 percent capacity and letting bowlers decide if they wanted to take the risk.

“We should have been able to run at full capacity all along,” Glomb said.

Many businesses were able to get loans and grants to cover some of the losses sustained by the shutdowns. 

Iva Harrison, owner of Affairs to Remember, an event planning company in West Bloomfield Township, said she was only able to get several thousand dollars — money that failed to make up the loss of 78 percent of her business.

Harrison said the easing of restrictions will do little to help her. 

“People don’t spontaneously say ‘Oh, I can do an event next week,’ ” Harrison said, adding that her business likely won’t see relief until fall and people remain cautious about planning large events.

Despite the ill will that the restrictions generated, Calhoun County health officer Eric Pessell said they were necessary to combat a disease for which there is still no cure. 

“There is a reason the public didn’t know or understand the actual (powers) that public health departments have,” Pessell said. “We don’t use them often and when we do it means there is a really bad problem.”

He noted that the pandemic isn’t over and the county’s vaccination rate — nearly 51 percent of those 16 and older — is a cause for concern, especially as summer turns to fall and more people return indoors.

“The positive side to this is now the public can see that public health orders are temporary and not permanent;  always has been and always will be,” he said.

Dr. Pino D. Colone, president of the Michigan State Medical Society, echoed the sentiment, saying the end of the restrictions is "testament to the effectiveness of the vaccine."

"We owe a great deal of gratitude to all the health professionals who have stood on the frontlines administering shots in an effort to keep us safe, and a sincere ‘thank you’ to the millions of Michigan residents who have acted responsibility and gotten vaccinated,” he said.

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