Did Michigan health orders slow COVID? Probably. But how much is debatable.

Michigan imposed strict limits on businesses, avoiding a Thanksgiving surge of the coronavirus. But other states that also have strict limits aren’t so lucky. (Shutterstock)

When Michigan’s health director, Robert Gordon, last week announced continued restrictions on some businesses and the relaxation of them on others, he touted continuing decline in case numbers statewide.

Comparing COVID-19 numbers, he pointed out that Ohio’s case counts were substantially higher than those in Michigan, despite being almost identical in late October.

It was proof, Gordon said, that the tough medicine of banning indoor dining and other activities like bowling and movie-going, helped reduce cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

“The pause is working,” he said Friday.

No doubt, Michigan has far lower case counts than Ohio and other neighboring states. But a Bridge Michigan analysis has found the relationship between restrictions and lower cases may be less definitive than Gordon suggested.


It’s a defining question of the year: How much can business restrictions bend the coronavirus curve? Few dispute they do to some extent, but many others question the economic and social cost.

The numbers provide fodder to both backers and skeptics of the restrictions. 

Democrats and others point out that Michigan currently has the lowest seven-day average of new daily cases per 1 million of other Great Lakes states.

In the Great Lakes, Gordon and other supporters point out that states with more restrictions have experienced bigger, clearer declines.

“Michigan is clearly in the best position of any state in our region,” he said.

But Republicans and others note that Michigan also has one of the region’s highest jobless rates — and almost every state, including those with fewer restrictions, are also experiencing a decline in cases.


The debate perhaps is best exemplified by the top two states with the highest current rates of infection: Tennessee and California, which both have more than 1,000 new daily infections per 1 million people.

That’s more than double Michigan’s current rate of 451 new daily cases (Tennessee’s is three times higher).

Republican Tennessee has no mask mandate and no ban on indoor dining or bars. Democratic California has all three, and yet hospitals in both states are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

Here’s the trend of Great Lakes states with similar restrictions as Michigan.


And here are trends of states that have no banned indoor dining (although some of their counties may have tougher restrictions):


That raises the question: How much do restrictions, like those on indoor dining, push down case rates?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Lindsey Leininger, clinical professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College who specializes in health care, data analytics and public policy. “To attribute cause and effect is a tough thing to do.”

The science behind the bans is clear, Leininger said: Limiting close contact among maskless people from multiple households drastically reduces the virus’ spread.

But she said the impact of restrictions of dining bans is less clear.

That’s because many people, without an edict from the government, have  chosen to avoid restaurants, buy groceries online or adopt similar distancing to stay safe.

Take Minnesota and Wisconsin: Minnesota has imposed more restrictions, including a ban on indoor dining. But in neighboring Wisconsin, a court ruling has limited Gov. Tony Evers’ ability to implement similar measures.

Even so, caseloads have remained about the same in both states.


It could take years to identify whether — and how much — government actions affected the spread of the coronavirus, Leininger said. 

Scholars will pore over cellphone data, infection rates, state and county-level restrictions and economic indicators to discern which decisions had the most impact.

“These are the kinds of questions we’ll be able to answer later,” she said.

But politicians and the public are arguing about them now. Gordon and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have highlighted  Michigan’s “success” compared to its neighbors.


Others have pointed to the pain suffered by businesses that have been ordered closed.

Michigan Republicans have resisted calls to pass legislation allowing a mask mandate, relying instead on messaging — strong public campaigns encouraging but not mandating safe practices.

“Use targeted actions. Fine tuned messaging. Loud. Consistent. Informing, inspiring, and encouraging,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, told Bridge Michigan recently. “No more blunt force instruments.”

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He said “local businesses can’t inoculate themselves against shutdowns. There are no vaccines for bankruptcy. Enough is enough. Open the economy. Punish the bad actors, but don’t destroy jobs.”

Looking at economic data between states, there are differences: Michigan and Illinois, which have both adopted tougher restrictions, have the highest unemployment rates in the region, at 6.9 percent in November. 

But Minnesota, which has also banned indoor dining, has the lowest rate, at 4.4 percent.

Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana, which have higher rates of new infections than Michigan, also have lower jobless rates:  Indiana and Wisconsin at 5 percent and Ohio at 5.7, both over 1 percentage point better than Michigan.

And the economic differences in the top two states for COVID is stark as well. Tennessee, which has few restrictions, had a 5.3 unemployment rate in November, compared to 8.2 percent in California, which has many business restrictions.


Don Grimes, an economist and senior research specialist at the University of Michigan, said states with tougher restrictions typically have higher jobless rates than those that have fewer restrictions.

“There is definitely a tradeoff between restricting activity and the labor market situation,” Grimes wrote in an email. “The question for policy makers is whether or not it's worth it, because of the lives and illnesses saved.”

Earlier this year, Congress added $600 per week to jobless benefits, while a new stimulus plan approved Monday will include another $300 per week for the unemployed.

In Michigan, a $465 million COVID-19 relief package approved this week provides assistance for those whose industries, like restaurants, have been hardest hit by the restrictions. It would include a payment of $1,650 to workers laid off because of state health restrictions.

But Grimes said the impact of restrictions has hit restaurants the hardest, which impacts the state’s jobless rate more than its tax coffers.

Because of the typical lower wages of the industry, restaurants account for about 8 percent of state jobs but less than 3 percent of total wages, he said.

Mask mandates

Most states have mask mandates on indoor activity, with 36 adopting them, including Michigan and all Great Lakes states, and eight not doing so. 

For about a month, the Dakotas — both sparsely populated, largely rural states — have had some of the highest case rates of the pandemic. North Dakota has a mask mandate, but South Dakota does not. Neither ban indoor dining and both states are still far higher rates of new infections than Michigan or almost all Great Lakes states — but in both Dakotas those rates are falling rapidly.


Avoiding the plane crash

Shirkey, the Senate majority leader, has said there’s “zero statistical data confirming” that the current restrictions have brought down case counts. 

In one sense, he’s right, as Leininger has said it will take time.

But the Dartmouth professor gave government leaders credit for taking proactive measures to lessen infections, sickness and death. She said she tells her students that people want health restrictions to be as precise as guiding a rocket, where every action has a measurable reaction. 

“But in reality it’s like a bush pilot in a storm trying to avoid a crash landing with some controls that may or may not work,” Leininger said. “Governors and other leaders [are] trying to do everything not to crash the plane.”

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Wed, 12/23/2020 - 8:54am

There is zero correlation. Other than economic destruction. MI infections peaked and started dropping BEFORE the mandate (not positive tests, infections which cause positive tests a few weeks later).

G. Scott
Wed, 12/23/2020 - 1:37pm


Wed, 12/23/2020 - 9:25am

To sum up a rather long article, we have solid consistent facts on anything here leaving political interests able to torture the stats to make whatever conclusion they want. Other words to answer the question, not so much.

Would you rather?
Mon, 12/28/2020 - 9:10am

Ohio has a 10 p.m. curfew. No curfews in Michigan.

Bill Adragna
Wed, 12/23/2020 - 9:40am

There should have been at least a mention of the affects of the hospitalization rates, ICU beds. What people like Shirkey never mention is what would happen if the hospitals go over capacity, which is a greater threat than anything else.

Pro Life?
Mon, 12/28/2020 - 9:13am

Yes! Also other than Wisconsin, the states without bans on restaurant dining indoors, the infection rates are roughly double. The GOP is pro Mammon, pro virus, NOT pro life.

Tim Joseph
Wed, 12/23/2020 - 9:59am

Since you cannot prove a negative as to the facts about the Covid epidemic, we can all go on holding our personal (ignorant) opinions and spouting them for years to come. Isn't that nice? My own feeling is one of gratitude for a Governor who did her best to protect me in a really rough situation.

Good Stooge
Wed, 12/23/2020 - 11:53am

I'll bet you never lost a paycheck during the entire time, did you? I'll bet you didn't lose your entire life savings when your business when bankrupt, did you? I'll bet you didn't have to wait 12 weeks to get your first unemployment check, did you? I'll bet you didn't lose a relative in a nursing home because the Governor decided that it was a good idea to put sick people in with healthy vulnerable people, did you? I'm betting that you're hiding in your house, awaiting orders on what to do next, aren't you?
Don't kid yourself, your blind obedience "protected" you.

Robert Honeyman
Fri, 12/25/2020 - 12:06pm

Not hiding. Doing what any intelligent person would do in the face of a pandemic: isolate as much as possible until vaccinated. And yes, I've both lost jobs and businesses. I'd rather give those up and remain vertical, thankyouverymuch. Kudos to the governor. Now to give her a legislature representative of the electorate once the redistricting commission removes Michigan from being the most highly gerrymandered state.

Geoffrey Owen
Mon, 12/28/2020 - 10:30am

Aside from the pandemic, gerrymandering truly is political inbreeding.

Jake K.
Wed, 12/23/2020 - 10:16am

I remember a couple of phrases my Prof of Accounting and various financial controllers have repeated frequently. "Figures don't lie, but liars do figure" and "the sum of 2 plus 2 is whatever you want it to be." Of course, the current state administration is going to "calculate" results to match their objectives. Those surviving businesses which have suffered will be bolstered with more and more public funds to try and reciprocate for the damage done. Those who have failed...oh well...collateral damage done on the basis of unsupported unilateral decision making. Clear thinking is certainly clouded and tainted by political positioning. I'm convinced that "my" governmental representatives don't actually represent me. Instead they represent their party and its preconceived direction. So yes, our state administration is posturing for a success story which will favor their actions and those of the Democratic Party, which through the incoming Biden administration will throw a tremendous amount of money at anything they can relate to the virus. Bad Republicans, Savior Democrats. Excuse me while I vomit.

Sun, 12/27/2020 - 11:43am

You hit the nail on the head Jake K!

Mon, 12/28/2020 - 8:59am

We can reason until we are blue in the face, but as mentioned, we need to look at ICU capacity and take into account superspreader events that continued to take place despite in-person restaurant restrictions. We've seen many Trump rallies, protests, church gatherings and defiant business owners despite state orders. So let's not kid ourselves. Things would have been worse without orders.

SB Smith
Mon, 12/28/2020 - 2:17pm

My god - you are so correct. People were already social distancing, taking care when eating out and being aware of those around them needing protection. I am so-so ashamed of the Governor, Sec of State and the Attorney General who have gone above and beyond making sure the economy of Michigan and the small businesses that make up that economy have been destroyed. All they have done to date has destroyed Michigan. Just another one with a business cfompletely destroyed in Michigan!

Wed, 12/23/2020 - 10:27am

Right wing propaganda

Nursing Homes
Wed, 12/23/2020 - 11:48am

They didn't slow the death rate in nursing homes where over 2,000 seniors died because of Whitmer's orders that put sick people in with the most vulnerable healthy people.
It's appalling that the media is giving her a pass on one of HER executive orders that caused over 2,000 deaths. Remember the Flint water crisis where the media and democrats wanted to crucify Snyder because he was in charge at the time. This is the EXACT same kind of situation. Where is the outrage over this?
I guess dead seniors are just a minor inconvenience to Whitmer and her stooges. They're all too busy kissing her ass to be bothered with all of these deaths that could have and should have been easily avoided.

Wed, 12/23/2020 - 1:44pm

Lucky I'm familiar with statistics. What this data shows is that there is very little to no correlation between the various COVID measures taken or lack there of. If you go back to the beginning of this thing, no state is any better off than other states because of the actions they took. Since that appears to the case from the statistics, I would love to see an analysis of % change in state GDP or state unemployment rate to show the other impacts to the restrictions states took. I bet that would be "eye opening" since the metrics indicate the restrictions really did nothing to impact the spread of COVID.

Erwin Haas
Thu, 12/24/2020 - 8:37am

This is the first article I've seen in Bridge that seems intelligent; the others all answer questions whereas this one questions answers.
I suspect that C19 marches through populations moving along lines of habits, exposures and susceptibilities of populations and that the changes of weather that force people to stay indoors (cold and heating season in the north, hot weather and AC in the south) promote spread. Each area gets one wave. In Michigan there was a massive wave that hit its crowded and poor SE parts that ran its course in March and April. Ithas burned out in part and also came to a halt with nicer weather in May.
We are currently seeing the first wave in outstate which started as folks started to stay indoors. The rising curve had inflected on 17 November, the day prior to Gov. Whitmer's newest orders which in turn have had no impact on the wave effecting Grand Rapids, the UP etc..... That wave is now burning itself out.
Detroit which suffered its misery last spring has been relatively spared this season. The data in retrospect is most compatible with this mechanism of spread.
The public health and government officials attempt to claim credit. Marx pointed out that (The) “top entrusts the understanding of detail to the lower levels, whilst the lower levels credit the top with understanding of the general, and so all are mutually deceived.” But thanks for the article.

Ellen Frank
Fri, 12/25/2020 - 11:04am

This is something of a false choice. The only choices don't have to be no restrictions/rampant virus vs. harsh restrictions/failing economy. While there will inevitably be severe economic hardship associated with a pandemic, the US approach is to let all the economic hardship be carried by individual businesses. Japan and European countries have used a variety of measures to support business in order to allow them to continue to exist and to pay employees, so restrictions on businesses do not result in the same level of unemployment and economic hardship. See the following source: https://www.csis.org/analysis/comparing-us-japanese-and-german-fiscal-re...

Mon, 12/28/2020 - 9:04am

Then there is New Zealand with only 25 total covid deaths and a woman in charge! Then again, maybe she was just lucky.

Ellen Frank
Fri, 12/25/2020 - 11:22am

This is a false choice. We are constantly being told it it a choice between restrictions/failing economy or no restrictions/healthy economy. But as the article points out, humans may change their behavior anyway, even if their is no mandate , and the economic impact is the same. In addition, in the United States, we have chosen to allow the burden of the economic hardshops to fall on small businesses (who have fewer economic resources to weather a crisis) and poor people (who tend to work in face-to-face essential businesses). While it is impossible to avoid economic hardship during such a pandemic, other countries, such as Japan and many European countries, have chosen to spread the burden by provided subsidies to small businesses that allow them to pay employees while remaining closed, thus spreading the burden across the entire population. https://www.csis.org/analysis/comparing-us-japanese-and-german-fiscal-re...

Sat, 12/26/2020 - 2:05pm

“local businesses can’t inoculate themselves against shutdowns. There are no vaccines for bankruptcy. "

No business vaccines, but there has been and hopefully will be public funds to keep businesses and their employees afloat until the benefits of the Covid-19 vaccines kick in and we achieve herd immunity.

People recover from a business slow down or shut down. They don't recover from dead.

Sun, 12/27/2020 - 8:39am

I'm wondering if Mr. Wilkerson can address what looks like an anomaly: the Michigan Bridges state data dashboard shows the case peak around November 20th, whereas the NYT data used for these state-to-state comparisons appear to show a higher peak starting around December 3rd. The trend lines used for this article don't match -- why this discrepancy?

Sun, 12/27/2020 - 8:47am

A nice piece of journalism presenting the numbers available and some of the pros and cons to shutdowns. Writer did a good job of finally pointing out the Dakotas and the question of "Why are their numbers dropping without all the restrictions?" I too would like to have seen a comparison of GDP between the states. Keep up the good work of questioning our leadership on both sides.

Geoffrey Owen
Mon, 12/28/2020 - 10:26am

Very interesting analysis. You are comparing states with mandates and states without. Overall the states with mandates are doing better, but of 50 states there are discrepancies. What isn't included in the analysis is the "Stupid" factor. You can't measure it except with the bottom line results which transcend politics, race, age and measureable demographics. A state with open residents might have a higher proportion of people who say "No way am I eating there" vs a state with a mandate against dining in and more people saying let's have a party. And then there's Rona who doesn't need an invite and if she hasn't penetrated your circle of contacts, she has penetrated a circle of friends that overlaps yours. Staying safe is a vigilance that requires a skillset, common sense and if you make just one mistake; Luck. My daughter came by with a Christmas gift yesterday. She would not come in. We masked. We stood 10 feet apart outside and talked for half an hour. Much better than the contact 80 million travelers had with 100 million interactions last week.

Mon, 12/28/2020 - 9:05pm

OK, it's fair for Bridge to look into this, but it's a pretty comically simple analysis. You'll need a lot more - probably finely-grained - data to do this kind of analysis properly. But there's a reasonable take-away: like the Federal Reserve does, the state should set a target (probably a range), and use that to increase/decrease restrictions. So, positivity rate below 5% and restaurants can open at 25% capacity with 10' minimum spacing. Positivity rate below 4% and restaurants can open at 33% capacity with minimum 9' spacing, and bars can open at 25% capacity. Positivity rate below 3% and restaurants can do 50% capacity and 8' spacing, with bars open at 33% capacity. Etc.

But that positivity rate should be calculated on a 50,000 tests per day rate. And if they're not testing at that rate on a 5-day rolling average, someone should be fired. They're currently refusing to test anyone without obvious symptoms - that's crazy. They should be testing anyone with a reason to be tested. As it is, they seem to be following Pres. Trump's advice and testing less, for no obvious reason.

Fri, 01/01/2021 - 11:11am

I appreciate the skeptical take as my other news sources are quite credulous about shutdowns. That said, I would have liked to see the jobless rate increases compared with the infection rate decreases. It would be an easier comparison to understand than a percent versus a per million rate.

Sun, 01/03/2021 - 11:21pm

this virus has a 99.9% cure rate...99.9%....and that is what we totally shut down everything? This was a gift for the democrats to exploit and scare everyone without a brain...do your own research...