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Bridge Michigan
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Whitmer: COVID tests for student athletes, but more fans for Detroit Tigers

Gretchen Whitmer, Joneigh Khaldun
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan that tied easing state restrictions to higher vaccination rates has been undercut by recent guidance from the CDC on mask rules and improving COVID numbers in the state. (Bridge file photo)

April 1: Michigan schools cheered when sports came back. Then came COVID outbreaks.

March 23: Michigan schools reopened. Then came a spike in COVID outbreaks

LANSING — With coronavirus cases again spiking, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday announced plans to require tests for student athletes but eased capacity restrictions at outdoor stadiums ahead of Opening Day for the Detroit Tigers.

Michigan is heading in the “wrong direction with the key metrics we are tracking for COVID-19,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, citing case counts and test positivity rates that have increased over the last four weeks.

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The mandatory student athlete testing program will not begin until April 2, so it is not expected to immediately reverse Michigan’s latest surge. 

Student sports have been linked to several recent outbreaks, and the two-week rollout gives state health officials time to work with schools and clubs “to make sure they know what to do,” Khaldun said. 

Under a new epidemic order from Health Director Elizabeth Hertel, any sports practices and games involving people 13 to 19 years old will be prohibited unless all participants have taken a weekly rapid antigen test. Khaldun called the plan “feasible” given current antigen testing supplies and federal funding. 

Whitmer said she is troubled by rising case counts and emerging variants but told reporters she is holding off on tighter restrictions for restaurant dining rooms, bars or other businesses that the state has gradually reopened in recent months. 

“We knew when we did that, we would increase the risk of spread, and that’s what we’re seeing,” Whitmer said. 

“The difference is right now, we know a lot more about this virus, and we are ramping up four vaccinations, but we are going to watch it closely, because these variants are very concerning.”

Surge in cases, vaccinations

In the past month, cases have risen sharply, with Michigan now having the nation’s fourth-highest overall rate of new confirmed or probable coronavirus cases.

Some of the nation’s biggest spikes are in the Thumb and northwestern Lower Peninsula. 

But cases are rising across much of the state as the percent of coronavirus tests coming back positive has increased in one week to 6.4 percent from 4.8 percent.

 

Unlike in October, when a surge prompted a spike in hospitalizations, the number of COVID-19 patients has risen more slowly, likely because 2.1 million residents have received at least one vaccine dose. Of those, more than 1 million are 65 or older.

Michigan on Wednesday reported no deaths from coronavirus for the first time since Aug. 7, but it could take a few more weeks until a clear trend emerges.

Student outbreaks are a small but not insignificant driver of the recent surge, with 162 of 645 outbreaks for the week ending March 11 attributed to K-12 schools.

Over the past two weeks, those who are ages 10 to 19 have made up 18 percent of all infections, up from 10 percent over the course of the previous year. That’s still less than a fifth of all infections and other age groups had bigger increases in the past week, including those 20 to 59 years old.

 

Whitmer warned that continued outbreaks could interrupt the statewide push to return to in-person classrooms.

Tigers stand to profit

At the same announcement, though, Whitmer said she is relaxing rules for large outdoor stadiums with at least 5,000 seats. 

They will be allowed to operate at 20 percent capacity so long as they have “establish and abide by an infection control plan” outlined in a new health department guidance. 

That means as many as 8,200 fans will be allowed to attend the Tiger’s Opening Day game on April 1, up from what would have been a 1,000-fan limit under a previous health department order. 

Chris Granger, president of the Ilitch Holdings firm that owns the Detroit Tigers, praised Whitmer for what he called a “partnership” to allow more fans who were not allowed in Major League Baseball stadiums last season.

“We are thrilled to safely welcome back the best fans in baseball to Comerica Park for Opening Day and beyond,” Granger said in a statement released by Whitmer’s office.

The Tigers have 13 home games in April, and with tickets averaging about $30 apiece, the expanded seating could bring in at least $2.8 million in tickets that month alone, not including concession or parking.

The expanded 20 percent capacity rules would also apply to some minor league baseball teams with more than 5,000 seats, including those used by Lansing Lugnuts and West Michigan Whitecaps.

Health fears

Some health officials have cautioned the state against easing stadium restrictions.

Outdoor gatherings are less risky than indoor events, but fans crowded into bathrooms, bars and restaurants could increase transmission, Dr. Teena Chopra, an infectious disease specialist with Wayne Health and Wayne State University, told Bridge Michigan on Monday.

A bigger concern, she noted, is that some people are simply “not very good at masking,” which makes any gatherings inherently more dangerous. 

“A lot of times we see masks and the nose is not covered. (And that’s) almost like you’re not wearing a mask,” Chopra said. 

The new state guidance requires stadiums to limit “spectator cohorts” to six or fewer people. Those cohorts must purchase tickets together, in advance, and provide contact information for tracing purposes.

Stadiums are also required to stagger entry and exit protocols “to avoid mass queues and gatherings outside of the venue.”

Whitmer urged residents to remain vigilant against the virus as the state ramps up vaccinations and opens eligibility in an effort to achieve herd immunity.

“The big unknown factor here is can we 10 million Michiganders continue to take this seriously until we get to that 70 percent (vaccinated) number, and that’s what’s so crucial,” the governor said. 

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