Michigan restaurants must track customers under new COVID rules


LANSING  — With coronavirus cases surging and colder weather beginning to curb outdoor options, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday announced aggressive new rules to try to slow the spread of the virus at indoor social gatherings. 

Calling it a “very dangerous time” for the state, director Robert Gordon issued a broad new epidemic order that will limit crowd sizes at indoor events like banquets, weddings and conferences to 50 people, down from 500. 

Restaurants and bars will be allowed to seat no more than six people at a table, and they will be required to record the names and phone numbers of patrons for contact tracing purposes should there be a known exposure to the virus. 

The health department is also moving the northern Lower Peninsula back into Phase 4 of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s economic restart plan, which will require all K-12 school children to wear masks and subject the region to the same crowd size limitations as the rest of the state. 

Gordon issued his order just over an hour before the state reported 3,675 confirmed coronavirus cases Thursday, a new daily high. The state also reported 41 new deaths and a stunning 8.9 percent positive rate on more than 51,000 tests reported Thursday, an indication of infections spreading more pervasively throughout the community. The statewide positive rate had been below 3 percent in recent months. 

The new order represents the most significant tightening of COVID-19 rules since the Michigan Supreme Court on Oct. 2 sided with Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature and invalidated an emergency authority law Whitmer had used to issue her own COVID-19 orders. 

GOP leaders have demanded a seat at the decision-making table, but the Democratic administration has primarily continued to act on its own, through the state health department. Gordon, a Whitmer appointee, used epidemic authority in the public health code to continue many of Whitmer’s orders, including a statewide mask mandate and workplace safety rules. But he had not implemented major new rules – until now.

The move comes amid what Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, called “incredibly concerning” trends in Michigan. “Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all increasing, and unless we change our behavior now, that will continue,” she said. 

Cases and deaths have surged in the state since Oct. 1, with the daily average number of cases nearly tripling from 854 cases a day to almost 2,400. Deaths have risen markedly as well, from nine a day in September to 18 a day in October and with the number of patients with COVID-19 in Michigan hospital beds rising as well, officials fear even more deaths will occur.

The quick rise in cases, deaths and hospitalizations first hit the Upper Peninsula but now is filling emergency rooms and hospital beds across much of the state, particularly in southwest and west Michigan.

Related: 50 men held an Upper Peninsula retreat traced to COVID. No one’s talking.

In a media briefing, Gordon told reporters the new order is focused on minimizing the “particular risks” of indoor gatherings at restaurants, bars, weddings and banquet halls where people are “moving around, chatting, dancing, eating and drinking without masks on.”

“The more people who are there, the greater the risk that someone has COVID, and the greater the number of people that can be infected,” he said. 

Violations of the order are considered a misdemeanor crime, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to six months in jail. 

“Our strong preference, and that of our law enforcement partners, is education and voluntary compliance,” Gordon said. “Nobody is wanting to punish but penalties are available.”

Controlling outbreaks

Michigan is currently reporting 34 ongoing outbreaks related to social events like family gatherings like bridal showers, weddings, funerals, parties and bowling rounds, infecting from three to 22 people. The state has linked another 19 outbreaks to church services, but religious institutions are exempt from the new crowd size rules, as are polling places and other election-related facilities. 

The new rules are “well within the epidemic authority of MDHHS,” Gordon said. He declined to say if he believes that authority would also allow him to issue the kind of stay-home quarantine order Whitmer issued early in the pandemic.

Case counts are now higher than they were in March and April, but for now, the state is taking “targeted actions” to address areas that “are particularly severe sources of the spread,” Gordon said.

“We know so much more than we did in March,” he told reporters. “We know about the power of masks, and that enables people to engage in a range of activities that weren’t possible then. So I do think we are better positioned by the science and the experience to live more fully in a way that we couldn’t in March.”

The state’s increased case counts are partially attributable to widespread testing. Michigan has averaged over 46,000 tests a day for the past week. Over that same time, about 6 percent of all cases have come back positive, double the state’s target of 3 percent, which is considered the level necessary to keep the virus under control.

But when the coronavirus first hit In the spring, even if a person had symptoms, it was hard to get a test. In the first three weeks of April, when Michigan hospitals had as many as 4,000 COVID-19 patients, over 30 percent of 106,000 tests came back positive. That’s just 5,000 tests a day, indicating that thousands of other cases were never confirmed at the time.

Gordon’s order came two days after Republican legislative leaders requested a meeting with Whitmer, Democratic legislative leaders and medical officials who recently warned that rising hospitalization rates could create “another capacity crisis.” That meeting has not yet occured. 

“Instead of taking us up on this offer, she has once again chosen to go it alone,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, wrote Thursday on social media. 

His office did not have immediate comment on details of the order, but spokesperson Amber McCann said they “will  continue to reach out to the Administration to communicate concerns regarding potential confusion caused by DHHS orders.”  

Shirkey has made clear Senate Republicans oppose a statewide mask mandate but he has encouraged their use. He’s also faced criticism from health officials after advocating for “an element of herd immunity” and suggesting Michiganders need to learn “to live” with the virus

House Republicans earlier this month unveiled a plan that would allow counties to opt out of statewide rules if local virus spread was low.

Restaurants react

The new restaurant contact tracing requirements set to take effect on November 2 drew criticism from the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, whose president and CEO Justin Winslow said the mandate “lacks merit given existing science and data.”

With restaurants already stretched thin by the pandemic, Winslow predicted the “well-intended effort is more likely to result in job loss, foreclosure and fewer restaurants than it will prevent transmission.”

But Cesar Ochoa, owner of Chapala Mexican Restaurant in Ann Arbor, said he welcomes the requirement to take names and contact information of patrons, which was already required at barber shops, beauty salons, tattoo parlors and other “personal care service” establishments.

The accountability will help restaurants that get caught up in contract tracing to report full and accurate information, Ochoa said. “Going this route gives concrete information that a patron does come into your business.”

The Washtenaw County Health Department recently identified his restaurant as one of two in Ann Arbor where at least one person with COVID-19 had recently visited. However, there was little additional information that would have helped him narrow down who else could have been exposed, including staff.

“That’s not fair for our employees or the other customers here,” Ochoa said. “This [new rule] will clear all of that up.”

Staff has been tested, and all of those tests have been negative, he added. But in the meantime, Chapala lost business during a time when restaurants were already struggling.

One remaining concern for Ochoa is the lack of detail on how he and other restaurants should initiate the regulation.

“How easy will it be for a patron to come in and give the wrong information?” he said. “Is there a form? Do we take it as they come in and ask for a table? When they leave? It’s so vague.”

With the University of Michigan facing Michigan State University in football at noon Saturday in Ann Arbor, the state health department also issued new guidance stressing mask use and other safety precautions at restaurants and social gatherings. 

Among the recommendations: “Keep voices down — shouting or cheering can increase COVID-19 in the air by up to 30 times.”

“Any time a person is inside with folks outside their family, they should be wearing a mask,” Gordon said. “If they take it off they should take it off for the shortest possible time and be aware that while it’s off, it’s a period of risk.”

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Dutch Detroit
Thu, 10/29/2020 - 6:50pm

Shirkey shirks his duties to the People. This virus is going to test our mettle and show the world what kind of people we are. Let’s pull it together people, and lead the way.

Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:38pm

No one is mentioning the "elephants" in the room, Kent county/the UP. It didn't have to be this way.

Thu, 10/29/2020 - 7:23pm

I think the branch covidians are running out of reasons of proof for their beliefs, so it is a way to drum up a few more cases to promote more destruction on the back of business owners and their employees. Please stay home and locked in your basement if worry about getting covid so others can live.
I feel sorry for these business owners and their employees trying to the keep their families fed and healthy by providing for them while others are bent on hurting them.

Thu, 10/29/2020 - 8:17pm

What I want to know is why bars and restaurants are even open in fact even stores other than groceries? I read the something like 170 some people out of a million test positive for covid and I don't care if most people do not have symptoms or it hardly effects them. It's the one who gets really gets sick or loses their life. I can't wait for Biden and Harris to lock down the nation. Halting peoples momement is the only way to halt this virus.

Roger Thomas
Thu, 10/29/2020 - 8:41pm

This is complete garbage and they know it.

Ronald Schultz
Thu, 10/29/2020 - 10:53pm

There is no misdemeanor, law comes from legislation, not from stasi at the state "health" department.
Everyone in my family will be giving fake information every time we go out to eat... We hate to cook, this will be almost every day as usual!

Charlie Brown
Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:09pm

You better learn to cook because restaurants will ban you. BTW that stasi state "health" department keeps those restaurants from serving you mice feces.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 8:31am

Maybe the colleges campus are working to keep things in controll, but off campus housing is another story. I've seen plenty of weekend gathers with no social distancing or wearing of masks which during the week puts other students, professors and those living near these off campus houses at risk. How is the governor going to crack down on these off campus gatherings? Who's going to take names?

GOP anarchy
Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:12pm

It wasn't a problem with the governor's emergency orders, but now you have to ask Chatfield and Shirkey.

Nate Kelch
Fri, 10/30/2020 - 9:19am

They have absolutely no authority at all to require this. They failed in the courts over and over. Your fear over something you have over a 99.9% survival rate from is absolute hysteria. The one thing being learned from all the cases being found (increase in number infected) is that it has a far lower death rate than the common flu. This fear and hysteria has become weaponized strictly for political purposes.

natalie g
Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:23pm

They only fail in the GOP politicized Michigan Supreme court. 237,477 dead in USA disagree with all your other thoroughly debunked lies.

Jackie O'Brien
Thu, 11/12/2020 - 10:37pm

It’s not just the direct death rate. Do you really want to be the person that gave your Grandmother COVID-19 and she dies? What about those that get seriously ill. Brain damage due to lack of oxygen, Lung damage, damage to other vita origins. Being ill for months … Long Haulers syndrome. The financial cost, doctor bills, hospital bills, prescription meds. You loose your job because of extended time off due to illness.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 9:24am

Masks have been “mandatory “ since July....yet cases are higher than ever...hmmm. Now you end up on a government snitch list if you want to go to dinner? Any business, restaurant or otherwise that continues to acquiesce to these asinine “rules “ is just nailing their coffin shut. The only way this nonsense ends is by mass rejection of it. Force the county to shut you down. Force them to have a licensing hearing with LARA. What would happen if 100...1000 businesses told that clown Gordon to kick rocks? Guaranteed that the issue would be resolved before any hearings took place. The government only has the power we give it. They are the problem, not the solution. Stand up for yourselves!

Mask This!
Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:24pm

Trump Flu, what more can I say?

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 9:39am

I can't wait till Biden is POTUS,,by summer he will have this China disease whipped and all will be back to normal,,HuRaHH!! Just wear your mask, stay 6 feet apart and wash your hands frequently and POOF,,Covid a thing of the past. Who needs a vaccine. The mask is the key!

Gold star
Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:25pm

Well, yes, that's how China stopped China Flu.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 10:09am

"Please fill out our guest register, so that you can be contacted if you have been exposed to the Covid-19 virus in our restaurant."

End of Times
Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:28pm

Please give me your credit card to pay. Oh and give me a name/call back number for that pick up.

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 10:21am

Restaurants, stores and people gatherings are covid spreaders. We must assume everyone is a covid carrier/spreader. Trump doesn't care. Biden/Harris said, "people everyone is going to mask up in public and I believe residences too. And anyone who is not absolutely essential does not need to be leaving their homes. I also hope they follow what australia and Ireland are doing with travel restriction of no more than 5k from your residence until we find a cure.

Rose Garden Sup...
Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:26pm

Meanwhile Trump raises a white surrender flag, says covid won.

Jake K
Fri, 10/30/2020 - 10:40am

So now the Dem administration is using the DHHS to circumvent the law. Shameful. I, among others, will not be frequenting any establishment that requires my ID to allow me to be a patron. Ridiculous. Drs. Khaldun and Gordon are falsely claiming the ability to control a virus through contact tracing? Only complete worldwide isolation might result in a transmittable virus to naturally exhaust itself. Even a vaccine is not an absolute remedy.

Anarchy in the UK
Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:29pm

What is "the" law? You mean food safety regulations, like you can't serve moldy food?

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 11:54am

I eat out frequently, but, unfortunately, until this rule is rescinded, I won't be patronizing dine in restaurants any time soon. Take out, yes. There is no call for this.

Ha Ha
Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:30pm

Sure, just leave your name and a call back number.

Wendy Malott
Fri, 10/30/2020 - 4:23pm

Why In the world would Shirkey NOT support a mask law? It’s been proven to work!! Governor Whitmer did a remarkable job in keeping Michiganders as safe as possible. You, on the other hand, are questionable!!

GOP Trumpists
Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:32pm

Shirkey and Chatfield want to tank our economy while Whitmer is in office just to say she's doing a bad job. It's time to vote in a big blue wave and put We the People back in power.

Todd Priest
Fri, 10/30/2020 - 6:44pm

These people won't quit until everyone is shattered. The places that are making it will be taken down by this tyranny. They won't be happy until all of our businesses are dead. Good luck asking me to give an accurate name and phone number if I even go out to eat now. I likely will stop eating out but if I don't, I will be named John Smith. My number will be 248-867-5309. The death rate is far less than the start of this virus. This has to be the longest most damaging temper tantrum we've ever witnessed and put up with from the left.

Your own fault
Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:36pm

Poor thing, are you shattered? If you wore your mask without screaming tyranny, we wouldn't have to go this route. Trumpty Dumpty and his fans are superspreaders. They and his sycophants (like you?) are destroying our economy.

Gerald D Pease
Fri, 10/30/2020 - 10:12pm

This is how we don't let the labors/activities of our people undermine themselves Comrades ! The State has spoken .

Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:39pm

Yeah, it does protect workers too! Why do you hate our economy so much?

Alfred Pennyworth
Sat, 10/31/2020 - 1:35pm

It's too little too late. I read our cases are up 85% since the DOPe supreme kanga court struck down the Govs powers given to her by the legislation. I find it odd how after almost 80 years they suddenly opinionated that those executive powers were suddenly unconstitutional.
Small businesses and the economy are all tanking hard because of the herd mentality plan. Other countries around the world are seeing huge rebounds in their economy because they had a SMART plan: masks, test, trace and temporary lock down where the virus was found.
Voters need to know this. The economic losses are not the fault of a virus but the fault of those GOPers who decided economic health is more important than human health.

Bob Craft
Sat, 10/31/2020 - 2:36pm

Can they use the information to do a search for outstanding warrants, child support, or delinquent taxes?

Good points
Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:40pm

I doubt, but I hope so.

Harry Carlson
Sun, 11/01/2020 - 12:22am

Your article doesn’t state WHEN the new regulations begin. One restaurant I ate at on Friday took my name and phone number. Today a different testaurant didn’t, and when I asked why, the hostess said the regulation doesn’t start until
Monday. When do the new regs begin?

Tue, 11/03/2020 - 2:41pm

Maybe the first restaurant thought you were cute or the second restaurant was QAnon.

Sun, 11/01/2020 - 11:43am

I'm confused...if there were more then 51000 tests done & 3675 came back positive, how is the positivity rate 8.9? 8.9% of 51000 is 4539.