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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan gyms, theaters, bowling alleys may finally be able to reopen soon

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says she may make a decision “very soon” on whether to reopen fitness centers, movie theaters, indoor skating rinks, bowling alleys and other businesses that remain closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are working around the clock and have been to ensure that every determination is made with the best expertise, the best protocols and the best science,” she said following a news conference Wednesday. “That’s how we will continue to operate.”

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The businesses have been closed since March 17 in most of the Lower Peninsula, and industry leaders have contended Whitmer’s staff has shown little evidence to support their continued closure while other businesses such as casinos have been allowed to reopen with safety requirements.

Detroit’s casinos have been allowed to be open at 15 percent capacity since Aug. 5. Many of the state’s tribal casinos have been open since late May, and Whitmer said they haven’t experienced major coronavirus outbreaks.  

That’s an indication that reopening the Detroit casinos at much lower capacity limits can be safe, she argued. 

But in fitness centers and the other businesses that remain closed, “there have been ample pieces of evidence that if not handled appropriately, these can be spreaders,” said Whitmer, who did not elaborate. 

“That’s why we wanted to make sure that we get the protocols correct,” she said.

The administration has “an idea of what that looks like” Whitmer said, adding she’ll have more to say on the matter “in the very near future.”

That can’t come soon enough for Alyssa Tushman, co-owner of Burn Fitness, a fitness center with three locations in southeast Michigan. She’s also the vice chair of the Michigan Fitness Club Association.

“It’s very scary right now,” she told Bridge. “Six months without revenue and still a lot of bills to pay.”

According to an estimate from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, Michigan has 1,039 health clubs that employ more than 42,000 and generate more than $36 million in revenue per year. 

Michigan has about 100 ice rinks that generate some $80 million per year, while bowling industry officials claim the sport generates $190 million annually and employs 5,000 people statewide. Similar estimates on movie theaters weren’t immediately available late Wednesday.

Tushman said “there’s a lot at stake” for gym owners, but they are prepared to take safety precautions to reduce infection risks. She said gyms are an important part of maintaining people’s health, improving their immune systems to fight off COVID-19. 

A third “of Michigan is obese; 94 percent of COVID deaths are due to comorbidities,” she said. “What we care about is helping people.” 

Advocates for fitness centers and other businesses have pleaded with Whitmer to allow them to reopen, saying that they will soon be forced to close permanently. The governor said in mid-August that she was considering reopening more businesses with limited capacity. 

Major business groups including the Michigan Chamber, the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Small Business Association of Michigan and the Grand Rapids Chamber sent Whitmer a letter the next day, arguing “that if industries like restaurants, public swimming pools, casinos and others can find a way to safely open in some capacity, we can also find a way to safely open gyms, theaters, bowling alleys and other industries.”

But Whitmer said last week she’s “not going to be bullied” into reopening the industries before it’s safe and said “we're going to continue to make decisions based on facts and data.”

Asked at her news conference Wednesday to clarify who was bullying her, Whitmer said there are “legitimate anxieties” among business owners and the phrase was intended to communicate “that I’m not going to be pushed or encouraged or tweeted at to make a decision that isn’t supported by science.”

Whitmer allowed gyms and movie theaters in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, where coronavirus case counts have been lower, to reopen on June 10

Some gym owners in other areas of Michigan defied the governor’s orders and reopened anyway, facing potential misdemeanor citations from police

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