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No new restrictions, but Michigan needs help amid COVID surge, Whitmer says

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants more vaccines from the Biden administration, citing a surge in cases in Michigan. (Bridge photo by Mike Wilkinson)

April 29 update: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer links easing COVID rules to vaccines

April 16 update: Mask up, Michigan toddlers! State expands COVID orders to 2-year-olds

As Michigan is battered by a worst-in-the-nation surge in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer resisted calls to add new restrictions on Friday, but pleaded with residents to be more vigilant and voluntarily limit activities.

Whitmer asked school officials to move high school classes online, for youth sports to shut down for two weeks and for residents to voluntarily avoid indoor dining.

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The calls were suggestions, however, and not mandates sought by some health experts as cases soar and hospital beds fill amid Michigan’s third coronavirus wave.

“This is a team effort. It's on all of us to do our part by masking up and getting vaccinated to protect ourselves and our families, so we can get back to normal,” Whitmer said. “Let’s get it done.”

Whitmer also asked the administration of President Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat, to send Michigan more doses of the coronavirus vaccines, a request that has not been accepted. 

Instead, she said the White House offered more therapeutic supplies, personnel and other things — but not additional vaccines.

“I am concerned because I believe, as do a number of public health experts, that we really should be surging vaccines to state,” she said. 

U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, co-authored a letter Thursday asking Biden to send more vaccines to Michigan.

The state ranks 33rd in the percent of population having gotten at least one dose, and 26th in those who have completed the vaccination. 

Rates vary widely across the state with counties with the highest current case rates — including St. Clair, Sanilac, Lapeer and Tuscola — also having some of the lowest vaccine administration rates.

Michigan No. 1

Michigan has the highest rates of new cases and hospitalizations in the country, averaging over 6,400 cases a day, up from 2,300 when Whitmer called on high school sports to expand testing on March 19.

Some of the surge is due to coronavirus variants, but also pandemic fatigue and Michigan’s comparatively low rate of earlier infections. Whatever the case, hospitalizations have surged, with patients nearly tripling to 3,500 from 1,300 on March 19.

The percent of coronavirus tests coming back positive — now at nearly 18 percent — are by far the highest in the country.

Whitmer’s request for voluntary compliance is a stark departure from her decision in mid-November when case rates were climbing just as rapidly. 

Robert Gordon, her then-director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, ordered the three-week pause on face-to-face instruction in high schools and colleges, shuttered indoor dining amid other actions.

At that time, no one in the state had been vaccinated and now, over 3.1 million have had at least one dose and nearly 2 million of those have had both doses.

Those vaccinations have helped reduce the number of seniors — who were among the first to get the shots — who have contracted COVID-19. They are also the most vulnerable to the disease, making up over 80 percent of all COVID-19 deaths.

Whitmer noted that some restrictions still exist: the state still has a mask mandate and a limit on indoor gatherings.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Clarklake Republican who has opposed the ongoing statewide mask mandate and business restrictions, said he is “encouraged” that Whitmer is trusting citizens to make their own decisions.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, went a step further, saying Whitmer should “take the next logical step” and “remove the remaining restrictions in Michigan, put everyone back to work when they can do it safely, and trust the people of this state to do the right thing for themselves and their families. “

Dr. Bobby Mukkamala, president of the Michigan State Medical Society, said Whitmer’s decision to resist mandates makes sense given Michigan’s political environment.

“If this was purely public health, and protecting Michiganders from this virus, then it would have been another mandate,” he said. “If it was a mandate, we would be embroiled in a conversation about the legality and the wisdom and the political aspect of it.”

Republicans have argued the surge is evidence the state’s restrictions haven’t worked, but it’s not yet clear whether Michigan is an outlier or if other states will experience similar surges, he said. 

Schools, sports targeted

Whitmer’s plea to schools and sports comes as nearly 300 clusters have affected 1,000 student athletes since January and hundreds of outbreaks are now spreading through schools.

It’s unlikely the request will have much impact: Indoor youth sports are wrapping up, as high school basketball tournaments conclude Friday and Saturday, and all remaining spring sports are outdoors.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association will continue its weekly testing and other COVID-19 protocols rather than recommend a shutdown, Mark Uyl,  the group's executive director, told Bally Sports Detroit on Friday.

Outdoor sports are less of a risk for transmission, he said, and the group believes it can safely continue spring sports.

“We’ve been trying to do all the right things going back to the start of the year in August and that’s just going to continue going forward,” he said.

Many school officials, meanwhile, are upset that Whitmer’s administration is “punting health decisions” to local officials after earlier imploring them to return to in-person classes by March 1, said Bob McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, an education advocacy group. 

Many students statewide are returning from spring break next week, and school officials have little time to consider Whitmer’s advice on high schools, McCann said.

“These are decisions that should be made by health experts, not by legislators and not by superintendents, and unfortunately that’s seemingly not how these decisions are continuing to get made,” said McCann, who worked as an aide for Whitmer when she served in the Legislature.

He added the governor’s request “puts superintendents in a very, very difficult position.”

The state’s largest teachers union, the Michigan Education Association, supported Whitmer’s move and called for school districts to go further — including younger grades and colleges.

Restaurants relieved

Michigan’s restaurant industry, meanwhile, is relieved that state officials aren’t adding new restrictions.

Restaurants have been allowed to open at 50-percent capacity since March 5, after a month of operating at 25-percent and three months of full dining-room closure starting in November. 

Many other states with very few cases — and far fewer than Michigan — have allowed indoor dining for months.

“She’s asking us to continue what we’re doing with social distancing and safety,” said Scott Ellis, CEO of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Industry. “We’re happy that’s where it’s at.”

Ellis said his group has had regular conversations with Whitmer’s office, which asked them to underscore for operators that the state needs help with curtailing virus spread. At the same time, the pace of vaccinations is offering them hope of increasing capacity, Ellis said. 

“We’ve always differed with the administration that bars and restaurants are the problem,” Ellis said.

Some operators, particularly in the Lansing area, are voluntarily closing dining rooms when they learn that staff has been affected by the virus, Ellis added.

“They’re stepping up, and handling it like they should,” he said.

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