Small gatherings, doctor and dental visits, retail by appointment and shopping for cars in person will soon be allowed in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday after signing a revised executive order to expand business openings.
Gatherings of 10 people or fewer can begin immediately. Auto showrooms and retail by appointment can open on Tuesday, May 26, while non-essential medical, dental and veterinary services can begin on May 29.
Another extension of the stay-at-home order, which first went into effect in late March and is currently set to expire on May 28, will also be likely, Whitmer said.
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“The data has shown that all regions of Michigan are ready for us to take this small step forward,” Whitmer said. “Please, as you are re-engaging in some of these activities, be smart, continue to do your part. We can’t drop our guard and run the risk of a second wave.”
Under the order, retail stores will be allowed to reopen “by appointment” and will be able to have only 10 people shopping inside the store at once. All businesses reopening due to changes made Thursday will be required to provide training for employees on COVID-19 and sanitation practices, and must maintain social distancing guidelines and strategies to protect workers.
Bill Hallan, president of the Michigan Retailers Association, said in a statement that the state’s retailers “have been preparing for weeks to reopen, so they’re ready,” adding that the association urged the governor to open retail stores statewide ahead of Memorial Day weekend.
“Now most retailers in Michigan are unnecessarily missing out on important holiday weekend sales,” Hallan said. “We look forward to working with the Governor to accelerate the opening process. Every day retailers are closed is another day we’ll lose more stores.”
The Michigan Retailers Association stressed the impact that each individual day has on retail loss in the state.
“They’ve lost thousands of dollars just by being delayed a few days,” communications vice president Meegan Holland said. “I’m crossing my fingers that stores will be able to hold on this long.”
Over the past months, she said the Michigan Retailers Association has hosted webinars on best practices for store flow, cleaning dressing rooms, and de-escalation during potentially tense situations to prepare for reopening.
Holland said that she is “broadly” interpreting the guideline for retailers to open “by appointment” and emphasized that the term should not “put shoppers off.”
“In my view, it’s no different from a walk-up appointment. We are all used to that with barbershops and hair salons and nail spas. You walk in, you hope you can be served right away, but you understand if you can’t be.”
The Michigan Hospital Association called the reopening of non-essential medical services “a positive step” and thanked the governor for “recognizing that hospitals have the appropriate supplies and capacity to resume nonessential medical services.”
Michigan’s hospitals have faced crushing financial losses since Whitmer barred non-essential medical procedures on March 20 in order to conserve PPE, staff and hospital beds. Primary care visits and elective procedures such as outpatient surgeries and diagnostic imaging account for most of hospitals’ revenue. Losing that money has prompted hospitals in Michigan to layoff thousands of employees amid a global pandemic.
The reopening should come as an encouragement for people to seek care for non-covid health concerns, said MHA spokesperson John Karasinski.
“This change in policy can only help to support our current statewide television and social media campaign urging Michigan residents not to delay care and that hospitals are safe places to receive services,” said Karasinski.
It takes at least two weeks for public health officials to see how any changes in public policy affect the virus’ spread, so Whitmer said the state will “need to take some time to ensure that these new measures are working.”
Whitmer did not indicate when she would reopen bars and restaurants statewide, as she did in the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan. Reopening non-essential medical and dental services were important to prioritize because there are many services — such as getting tonsils removed — that aren’t immediate emergencies but “putting these things off too long can come with additional health consequences.”
The changes come as the health crisis is increasingly tied to an economic one: State officials announced Tuesday that the unemployment rate reached 22.7 percent in April, higher than that experienced during the Great Recession.
Health officials will be watching as the new policies, including the reopening of the two regions in northern Michigan, take effect ahead of Memorial Day weekend. Whitmer warned people who gather with friends or visit northern Michigan over the long weekend to “stay safe.”
“This virus is still present in Michigan,” she said.
As of Wednesday, Michigan has had 53,009 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and lost 5,060 people to the virus. The rate of new cases has mostly been slowing and testing capacity has improved, but epidemiologists expect a possible spike in cases as restrictions are loosened.
“As long as people maintain social distancing and keep their masks on, I am in agreement” that the new policies won’t pose a great danger, said Rosemarie Rowney, former Assistant Professor and Clinic Instructor in Epidemiology. “However human behavior is such that both are easily forgotten in the joy of being with others.”
Even with following the new health guidelines, more movement ultimately means more potential for virus transmission and infection.
“As we’re out and about in the community more, we will see more cases,” Michelle Klein, director of personal health for the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department told Bridge when northern Michigan regions reopened.
“But also, we understand that this coronavirus is not going to go away, and that was never the goal [of the stay-home order.] The goal was to help us be more prepared in our health care systems to manage things as they came.”