Michigan bar and restaurant owners who want Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration to end the current ban on in-person dining are hoping the numbers are in their favor.
Enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the ban on indoor dining — set to expire Friday — is the highest profile of all the restrictions the administration adopted in November and extended in December to stem a deadly wave of the virus that has sickened nearly 400,000 and killed 6,500 since early October.
Health officials have said three key factors will inform their decision on easing restrictions: case rates, hospitalization rates and test positivity. And a Bridge Michigan analysis of national coronavirus statistics shows Michigan has some of the lowest case, hospitalization and positive test rates in the country.
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“I don’t see how they could make any decision other than to open restaurants based on their own metrics and their own words,” said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association.
But Winslow, who claims restaurants are a “lone scapegoat” in the battle against the coronavirus, said he’s not optimistic, however, that Whitmer will end the 58-day “pause” on indoor dining. A decision could come as soon as Wednesday.
Here’s how Michigan stands:
- Cases: Michigan averaged 64 new daily cases for every 100,000 people in early December, roughly 6,400 a day, the 35th highest rate in the country. The rate has fallen by nearly half to 35 daily cases this week. Only three states have lower rates.
- Hospitalizations: Michigan had over 4,000 COVID-19 patients in state hospitals in early December, when its rate per million put it 22nd in the country. The state now has fewer than 2,400 in hospitals and ranks 35th in COVID-19 patients per million.
- Testing: In early December, an average of 12.3 percent of all coronavirus tests were positive, the 25th highest rate in the country. It’s now at 9.3 percent, good for 39th.
Make no mistake, all rates are still higher than they were in the summer, when there were fewer than 1,000 daily cases and less than 700 patients hospitalized statewide for the coronavirus.
“While indeed the numbers in Michigan are trending down and Michigan is doing well compared to other states, I think we need to be cautious during these next two weeks or so,“ said Joseph Eisenberg, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan.
And epidemiologists and others point out that, while Michigan’s restrictions have impacted case rates to some degree, how much is unclear. Other factors include public awareness, behavioral changes and even weather.
For advocates of a go-slow approach, the numbers underscore that the limits work. For Republicans and the restaurant industry, declining caseloads mean that it’s time for Michigan to join 41 other states without bans on indoor dining. (Michigan’s restrictions also bar indoor sports, water parks and indoor fitness classes.)
State Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso, urged Whitmer on Monday to end the ban on indoor dining, questioning the validity of studies and data that the state has relied upon to show the dangers of indoor dining. The majority floor leader said thousands have lost their jobs or their businesses to the restrictions.
"There is no doubt that dining with others is a treasured social activity across our state," Frederick wrote. "What is not seemingly considered within your administration's response is the capacity for restaurateurs to create a safe dining experience, and the ability for competent and sound decision-making on the part of patrons."
For public health officials and others, the answer is not so clear. While they acknowledge the closures have harmed hospitality workers, they say eating and drinking indoors ticks all the boxes of potential infection: people from multiple households in close proximity and without masks for sustained periods of time.
State numbers do little to settle the argument: 54 of Michigan’s nearly 1,000 outbreaks involved bar and restaurant staff and patrons, according to records up to Nov. 17, just before indoor dining was banned.
That’s 5.4 percent of all outbreaks, but tracing infections back to specific restaurants is difficult because patrons are often reluctant to tell health officials they were at a bar or dining out, said Eric Pessell, health officer of Calhoun County.
Two weeks into the new year, Michigan has had a slight increase in infections over the two weeks, to just over 3,000 on Tuesday from 2,400 daily cases on Dec. 28, but nothing like the fall surge.
“The overall trend is down and in the right direction,” said Pessel of Calhoun County, who noted that hospitalizations and cases in his southern Michigan county dropped quickly after the latest restrictions.
“What we all need to think about is how much do you open the valve when it’s pretty obvious that tightening those valves [have] worked?” he asked, referring to the dining and business restrictions.
Business leaders and legislators including Frederick and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, have questioned the effectiveness of the restrictions and noted that the state’s unemployment rate, 6.9 percent, is 14th highest in the nation.
“Restaurant employees trying to provide for themselves and their children are at a financial breaking point,” Frederick, the state representative, wrote to Whitmer.
In the western Upper Peninsula, top elected officials in Baraga County signed a “manifesto” calling for an end to restrictions they claimed have “not been seen in North America since the days of King George III and the American Revolution.”
The letter, signed by all five county commissioners, the sheriff, the clerk and treasurer, said the county would no longer abide by the Whitmer administration’s “measures which treat human beings like herd animals and which arbitrarily pick economic winners and losers.”
State Rep. Greg Markkanen, R-Hancock, lauded the county officials on his Facebook page, sparking a community debate. Some were appalled at the “manifesto,” while another said “if you’re scared, stay home.”
Besides unemployment, though, the economic impact of the restrictions is more muted, said Brad Hershbein, an economist with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo.
There are many jobs in the leisure industry but the pay — often part-time — is lower. “It’s a bigger employee impact than it is a GDP impact,” he said, referring to gross domestic product.
But even if the restaurants were allowed to reopen their dining rooms, it’s unclear how many patrons would follow, Hershbein said. He pointed to research that shows residents of states like Michigan that were hit first by the coronavirus are more likely to avoid higher-risk activities.
He said his research has found those states also have longer-lasting economic impacts, a potential sign that big spikes in deaths trigger a caution among people “because you know someone who died,” he said.
Hershbein said he believes the Whitmer administration is more likely to remove the requirement that all employers prohibit in-person work if that work can be done remotely.
He said many service-related businesses, which are allowed to be open, have been hurt by a lack of customers who traditionally would have been in office buildings or working in a downtown setting, like restaurants, personal care providers and other retailers. Instead, those workers are at home, miles away.
The Michigan Health and Hospital Association, which has implored people to be safe and has supported the restrictions, told Bridge Monday it has not taken a position on whether they should end or be extended.
“We’re feeling much better about our capacity to handle patient care than we did in November and December, but the fact remains that we still have nearly 2,500 patients hospitalized for COVID-19,” John Karasinski, the group’s director of communications, told Bridge in an email.
“While Michigan is in a better position regarding the spread of COVID-19 than other states, it is vital that everyone remains vigilant and continues to follow public health safety measures to preserve the successes achieved in reducing the spread of COVID-19 over the past two months.”