LANSING — Detroit casinos can reopen at limited capacity next week but some northern Michigan bars will have to end indoor service again under an executive order signed late Wednesday by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The new order, Whitmer’s latest response to the coronavirus pandemic, will impose uniform restrictions on indoor social gatherings and bars across the state, tightening rules that had been eased in northern lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
Now, under rules made statewide, bars that derive at least 70 percent of their sales from alcohol are prohibited from serving customers indoors. And indoor events like parties, weddings, receptions and other social gatherings cannot exceed 10 people. A prior order had allowed bar service and indoor gatherings of up to 50 people in northern Michigan and the U.P.
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In announcing the new order, the Whitmer administration cited a series of “super-spreading events” at large social gatherings that have led to new COVID-19 cases, particularly among young people. An outbreak at Harper’s Brewpub in East Lansing led to at least 187 infections and prompted the governor to tighten restrictions for lower Michigan earlier this month.
At least 43 coronavirus cases have been linked to a sandbar party over the July 4 holiday weekend at Torch Lake in Antrim County. Whitmer’s order continues to require social distancing but does not impose new crowd limits on outdoor gatherings in northern Michigan and the U.P., where up to 250 people can still gather.
With COVID-19 cases creeping up, “we must take every step possible to save lives, protect the brave men and women on the front lines, and avoid overwhelming our healthcare system while we continue to combat COVID-19,” Whitmer said in a statement.
“After seeing a resurgence in cases connected to social gatherings across the state, we must further limit gatherings for the health of our community and economy. By taking these strong actions, we will be better positioned to get our children back into classrooms and avoid a potentially devastating second wave.”
Whitmer’s new order will allow Detroit's three casinos to reopen at 15 percent capacity on Aug. 5, provided they implement additional health protocols, including daily screenings and temperature checks for staff and customers, who will be required to wear face coverings except while eating and drinking.
"Casinos have been operating safely across most of the country and in tribal areas in Michigan and should be able to do so in the Detroit region as well," Whitmer wrote in her order.
The Detroit casinos have been closed since mid-March, when Whitmer issued sweeping economic shutdown orders she has subsequently relaxed for most business sectors.
MGM Grand, MotorCity and Greektown earned nearly $300 million and generated $59 million in wagering taxes for the city and the state through the first three months of the year. But they haven't earned a penny since, despite a reopening plan the Michigan Gaming Control Board proposed to Whitmer in early June.
MotorCity Casino last week warned the state it was preparing for mass layoffs and planned to at least temporarily cut 2,554 workers on July 31.
"Although we remain optimistic about reopening soon, we do not know exactly when that will occur nor do we know exactly what limitations will be imposed on our operations," David Turner, vice president of human resource, wrote in a notice to the state.
"We also cannot predict at this point how many associates we will be in a position to bring back to work initially or in the weeks following our reopening."
Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula have, by far, the fewest COVID-19 cases in the state but are experiencing the fastest increases in sparsely populated regions where hospitals are small and far apart.
The number of cases in the Upper Peninsula grew by just 50 cases in June but has jumped 342 cases in July, bringing the U.P. total to 507, triple the number that existed at the beginning of the month. Meanwhile, the 17 counties in the northern part of the lower peninsula saw an 82 percent increase in cases in July, up 474 to 1,055 as of Wednesday.
All other regions, most of which were far harder hit earlier in the pandemic, have also seen bigger increases in July as Whitmer loosened restrictions and people began moving about.
Though the case count increased fastest in the two northern regions, the cases per 100,000 for each of those regions remain well below the six other regions of the state. There were between 105 and 114 cases per 100,000 people in July in the north, compared to nearly 300 per 100,000 in metro Detroit and 265 in the counties around Grand Rapids.
But the more populated parts of the state also have the most hospital beds and Whitmer has long said she has approached her decisions regarding reopening areas in rural Michigan with the limited health-care infrastructure in those areas in mind.
The Traverse City region, a popular summer tourism destination, was "doing very well" with COVID-19 “up until about July 1," Grand Traverse County Health Director Wendy Hirschenberger told Bridge Wednesday.
"At that point, we had 45 cases for a normal population of 92,000, but the population swells a lot in the summer — a lot of people have second homes and there are a lot of visitors," she said. "We're now up to 151 cases, so we have tripled in four weeks."
Some of those cases have been linked to visitors from other states, and some have been linked to people from other areas of Michigan who've traveled north, according to Hirschenberger.
"You sort of know that's gonna happen,” she said. “We're in a different phase than a lot of the Lower Peninsula, so some people are coming up here to get away.
— Bridge reporters Mike Wilkinson and Robin Erb contributed