Citing continuing concerns about hospital capacity and “alarmingly high” death rates, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a 12-day extension of the COVID-19 restrictions initially put in place three weeks ago.
That means high schools, colleges and universities must continue online learning only. Theaters and casinos must remain closed, and bars and restaurants can’t resume indoor dining, an especially tough blow during the crucial holiday season.
“We've made progress during this three-week pause,” the governor said. “Cases...have started to level off. But there is more work we need to do to protect one another. A month ago, we were worried, we warned that on the trajectory we were on, we could see 100 deaths a day by Christmas. That was what we were worried about. Here we are a few weeks before Christmas, and we are already sadly above that mark.”
The 12-day extension will give health officials time to see whether initial progress continues, state officials said, and capture the full effect of Thanksgiving travel. But the governor said there are no guarantees the restrictions won’t be extended again, and reengagement, when it comes, will happen gradually.
If three metrics – hospitalizations, case counts, and percentage positivity – improve, then reopening high schools would be the first priority, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said.
“The first thing we look next to do is to give local communities the ability to reopen high schools, because of their unique value for kids, for families, for our future,” Gordon said, later adding that reopening may not extend to high school sports. “Among some small adjustments, today's order allows career and technical programs to resume in-person, hands-on instruction under rigorous protocols.”
Theaters, bowling alleys, casinos and stadiums would be next in line, providing they keep concessions closed.
“The science on eating and drinking inside is settled,” Gordon said. “As Governor Whitmer said, there's a lot of studies on this, and I'll name just one recent one. While inside a restaurant, two people got COVID infections from an individual who was 15 to 20 feet away in one case for just five minutes. That finding mirrors a raft of studies finding a correlation between restaurant traffic and infection levels.”
Indeed, there were few if any rays of hope in Monday’s announcement for Michigan’s beleaguered restaurant industry. In an emailed statement attributed to Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association President & CEO Justin Winslow, the MRLA said it was “exceptionally disappointed” but not “surprised.”
“We firmly believe there is a better approach – one followed by 45 other states – that doesn’t use blunt force closure of a single industry to resolve a shared crisis. We maintain that a more nuanced approach that allows for limited indoor capacity with a curfew will result in greater compliance, better health outcomes and substantially reduced economic fallout.”
“Upon completion of this most recent Order, restaurant dining rooms will have been closed for 118 days, nearly one-third of the calendar year. We already know the impact of another extended shutdown will be significant, as the industry lost over $8 billion in sales and laid off more than 75 percent of its workforce when it was shuttered for an extended period in the spring.
“The restaurant industry is comprised of creative and resilient individuals, but for a growing number of them, this latest pause is the cause of their lost livelihood and well-being.”
In November, the owners of a restaurant chain urged others to defy Whitmer's order, released a letter calling on the industry to "band together and FIGHT BACK." Then last week, a federal judge rejected the restaurant industry's legal challenge to Michigan’s temporary ban on indoor dining.
Whitmer addressed the growing controversy.
"It's not anyone's fault. It's not the restaurant's fault, it's not my fault, it's not Dr. J's fault or Director Gordon's fault. This is how COVID-19 spreads. It's just that simple. It's the science of the virus, and that's why we've got to limit indoor gatherings where people come together from different households, stay together and not wear their masks."
But the Michigan Health and Hospital Association welcomed the continued restrictions, after publicly urging the governor to extend them through the holiday season.
“[The measures are] slowly stabilizing the spread of COVID-19 and leading to stabilized hospitalizations,” the MHA said in an emailed statement Monday morning.
“...Michigan was on the path to record COVID-19 case rates, deaths and hospitalizations when this order was adopted in November. Today, our hospitals continue to face critical healthcare worker staffing shortages and troubling bed capacity numbers. Our teams on the front lines are exhausted as this second surge continues; we never truly recovered from the first. Now, data is indicating slight declines in COVID-19 emergency department visits, daily admissions and total hospitalizations. As physicians, we’re telling you: these measures are working.”
Michigan’s hospitals are currently at 74% capacity overall, though several individual sites are completely full. And as of December 4 (the most recent available data), 70 Michiganders are dying per day, based on a rolling seven-day average. That’s an improvement from a week earlier, but still several times higher than just two months ago.
Case rates have been trending downward too, said chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. But the state’s positivity rate recently ticked up again to 14%, after a brief decline.
“While there are some signs that things may be improving, we are clearly still in the midst of our second surge of COVID-19 in Michigan,” Dr. Khaldun said.