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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan mask rule change: Many questions. Some answers. What to know.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration on Friday lifted an indoors mask mandate for fully vaccinated residents, but individual rules for businesses may vary widely.

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.
June 17: This is it: Michigan to end gathering, mask rules on Tuesday

Dr. Bobby Mukkamala had just vaccinated a homebound patient on Friday when the man stopped and asked a question.

Will people start forging COVID-19 vaccination cards, the man asked, now that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is ending Michigan’s mask mandate for fully inoculated residents?

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Mukkamala, who is past chair of the Michigan State Medical Society and also co-owns restaurants in downtown Flint, had questions of his own:

Who will enforce this? Will restaurant staffers be expected to ask patrons if they’ve gotten the shot?

"Scientifically it makes perfect sense," Mukkamala said of Whitmer's new order, which follows guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and reflects data showing vaccine recipients are much less likely to contract or get sick when they are exposed to the virus.

 

“When you look at the people that are ending up in the hospital now, it's 99 percent of them are people that have not been vaccinated.”

But logistically?

“There's a big gap here,” Mukkamala told Bridge Michigan.“It will create this sort of confrontation or tension, because you know as well as I do there are going to be a lot of people who are not going to be vaccinated and have no intention of being vaccinated that will just not wear a mask and try to blend in with those who are vaccinated.”

Indeed, there are as many questions as answers as the rule ends at 9 a.m. Saturday. Bridge Michigan is here to sort them out as best as possible.

How are businesses going to police this? How will they know who is and who is not vaccinated?

A new order, released late Friday, specifies that businesses, stores, offices, schools and event organizers must still make a “good faith effort” to ensure unvaccinated employees, visitors and customers wear masks indoors.

The state also issued new guidance for sports and large outdoor events to reflect the new mask rules.

What’s a good faith effort? 

Per the order, that could include: Posting a sign that wearing a mask is required unless a person is vaccinated or falls into another specified exception, asking patrons not wearing masks whether they fall into a specified exception or continuing to require face masks of all patrons and employees.

Earlier Friday, representatives from restaurant and retail trade groups worried that the rule will put them in a tough spot and sought guidance from state officials on how to proceed.

"We're not advising anyone right now that it's their responsibility or that they should be deciphering and seeking out vaccine credentials to allow someone to move about the restaurant without a mask," said Justin Winslow of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. "That's too big a responsibility to put on them without clear guidance as to what this means."

Does this mean I need to get vaccinated?

Of course not, but that’s the hope, according to CDC officials and other medical experts. 

Michigan isn’t offering a million dollar lottery, like Ohio, but Whitmer has already incentivized vaccines by promising to lift regulations when the state meets certain vaccination thresholds. 

And lifting mask mandates for fully vaccinated residents could encourage more people to get inoculated, said Mukkamala, the Flint doctor and past president of the Michigan State Medical Society. 

Public opinion polling suggests 27 percent of Michiganders may never get vaccinated, but roughly 55 percent of adults have already received one dose, meaning nearly 1 in 4 could still be “convinced,” he said. 

“And this is the sort of change in regulation that could push them toward getting it.’

Should I wear a mask at Meijer? Or Walmart?

Private businesses can still set their own policies for the safety of their staff or customers, and those rules will vary by company. So if you don’t know their policy in advance, you may still want to carry a face covering when you set out to go shopping or grab a restaurant dinner. 

Meijer and fellow grocery giant Kroger announced Friday they plan to continue requiring masks. Other retailers like Target and CVS are reportedly keeping mask rules in place for now while they re-evaluate their policies in light of the new CDC guidance. 

Trader Joe's, Costco and Walmart, however, said fully vaccinated customers are no longer required to wear masks while shopping. Same goes members of the Life Time health chain, which sent an email to Michigan members that "strongly encouraged" unvaccinated members to wear masks.

School districts such as Bloomfield Hills notified parents they were still requiring masks as administrators await guidance from health officials.

Can businesses or the state demand proof of vaccination?

Whitmer’s office has said she has no intentions of implementing a so-called vaccine passport that could be used to allow inoculated residents to travel or receive special access to restricted areas like hotels, gyms, theaters and music venues.

Republicans in the state Legislature are moving to ban the passports preemptively, citing privacy concerns, but none of those bills have reached Whitmer’s desk yet.

Employers, however, are legally entitled to ask employees whether they have been vaccinated to return to work. 

Where else do I still need a mask?

Michigan courts will continue to require staff and visitors to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines, Administrator Thomas P. Boyd told judges in a memo released Friday.

"CDC guidance informs individual behavior, and does not have the force of law," Boyd wrote. 

Even if you’re vaccinated, you should still wear a mask in all health care settings, including hospitals and doctor’s offices, according to the CDC.

And that’s an important distinction to help protect front-line workers, according to The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.

“For healthcare personnel, it is often not known whether patients have been vaccinated when they first arrive in need of care, and we provide care for many highly immunocompromised patients who may remain vulnerable to COVID-19 even after vaccination,” the medical professional society said.

Won’t new COVID-19 cases rise, especially among those who haven’t been vaccinated?

It’s unclear, said Linda Vail, health officer for Ingham County. The pandemic is following the same pattern as 2020, when case counts plummeted in the spring.

And this year as case counts are falling again, nearly 5 million people in the state have been vaccinated, potentially blunting the wider spread of the disease once masks come off. She said case counts might just not fall as fast as they would if everyone continued to wear masks.

But Michigan just endured the worst — by far — COVID-19 outbreak in the country and still has the highest average daily case count, though it has fallen precipitously in the past month.

That means there is still lots of infection in the state, and Vail doesn’t expect the unvaccinated will keep their masks on or practice social distancing.

Do workplace safety rules still apply?

Michigan has a separate set of COVID-19 workplace safety rules, including employee mask provisions that remain in effect but could soon be changed as well. 

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration “is in the process of reviewing” those rules, COVID-19 Workplace Safety Director Sean Egan said in a Friday statement.  

“The agency has the flexibility it needs to ensure consistency with public health guidelines and will continue to protect Michigan workers as we work toward ending this pandemic.”

Temporary rules, that could last through Oct. 14, require all employers to provide face masks to employees at no cost, and to require mask wearing when employees cannot consistently maintain six feet of separation.

MIOSHA has also proposed permanent rules that include many of the same provisions, but “I think this has dramatically increased the chances that they will decide not to pursue permanent rules,” said Brian Calley, CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan. 

“I will be very, very surprised if, if the changes in the epidemic emergency orders do not foreshadow withdrawal of the permanent rules and significant modification to the temporary rules,” Calley said.

What does this mean for Whitmer’s ‘Vacc to Normal’ plan?

Not much, according to Lynn Sutfin, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

The 11 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants remains in place, as do capacity limits for them and a host of other businesses including movie theaters and sports stadiums.  

Whitmer planned to lift the restrictions gradually once Michigan passes certain vaccination thresholds, and remove all rules once 70 percent of adults are vaccinated.

“We'll make adjustments if necessary,” the governor told Michigan Radio on Thursday. “If we see our positivity rate plummet and our hospitalizations plummet as well and things continue to fall on the vaccination front, we may reevaluate, but at this point, it's too early to say.”

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