The Whitmer administration has announced new restrictions on restaurants, high schools and colleges, and some entertainment venues that will last for three weeks, starting Wednesday.
In a Sunday evening press conference, Whitmer and top health officials said the new emergency measures taken by the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are needed to stem the spiking number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
“We are in the worst moment of this pandemic to date — the situation has never been more dire,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Sunday. “We are at the precipice and we need to take some action.”
DHHS Director Robert Gordon announced eight components to the new restrictions that target indoor gatherings. The emergency orders will be in place until Dec. 8.
Restaurants and bars will be required to close dine-in services but can remain open for take-out and outdoor dining. In-person classes will be halted at high schools and colleges, while entertainment businesses including movie theaters, bowling alleys, commercial casinos will be closed.
The order also encourages employees to work from home if possible but leaves open manufacturing, construction, health care and “very few kinds of office work,” Gordon said. Retail stores, hair salons, gyms and preschool-8 schools can remain open, as state officials said outbreaks and case numbers are more likely to take place in high schools.
The Department of Health and Human Services has issued emergency epidemic orders involving mask wearing, limited indoor gathering sizes and residential care facilities since the Michigan Supreme Court struck down a 1945 law that Whitmer had previously used to issue executive orders.
The state’s latest order drew criticism from Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, who claimed Whitmer has shut out Republican lawmakers from the decision-making.
“The health and safety of our communities is our top priority. The Senate Republicans have been engaged in thoughtful conversations with our doctors, hospitals, and the Whitmer administration on ways to combat the spread of this insidious virus and help support our healthcare workers. While were meeting in good faith, Gov. Whitmer was working on her own strategy that did not include input from the Senate Republicans and we see the result of her plans in this latest round of restrictions,” Shirkey said in a statement.
Democrats and the Whitmer administration have criticized Republicans for not putting forth a comprehensive COVID-19 plan or approving a mask mandate, and for going on a legislative break for the rest of the month.
Trinity Health Michigan CEO Rob Casalou responded to Shirkey on Twitter Sunday night: “Mike, as a member of the medical community you claim you are working with, we don’t see you. One phone call with our CMOs does not constitute working with us. We have told you we are in trouble but you decided that the pandemic was a good time to take a vacation.”
‘Spreading like wildfire’
As of Nov. 14, the state reported 251,813 total confirmed COVID-19 cases — including 7,072 cases on Saturday — and 7,994 total deaths. Kent, Ottawa and Oceana counties have the highest rate of total cases in the Lower Peninsula with 37,078, 34,416 and 32,029 cases per million people, respectively. As of Saturday, three counties in the western Upper Peninsula had more than 40,000 cases per million people, according to state data.
As of Sunday, the statewide positivity rate on COVID-19 averaged 12.5 percent, with county wide ranges from 9-15 percent, said Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. Health experts say the test positivity rate should be around 3 percent to manage the spread of the virus. Khaldun said last week the high positivity rate “means this virus is out of control.”
Khaldun said Sunday night the “entire state is seeing an alarming number of cases. COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire.”
Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office issued a statement Sunday night in support of the new restrictions and encouraging local enforcement.
“As with past orders, county public health departments and local law enforcement are primarily responsible for enforcement in their own communities and we hope they do so. We stand ready to assist them in their efforts,” Nessel spokesperson Kelly Rossman-McKinney said in a statement.
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Whitmer said Sunday the new restrictions meant to control the public health crisis are “essential to getting our economic crisis under control.”
The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce urged residents to continue supporting Michigan businesses that will be affected by the new order, while the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association predicted it would lead to more restaurant and bar closures.
“This will be disastrous for many businesses. We need to rally together again to flatten this curve and support many of the businesses in need. This is especially true as no additional federal support is on the way,” the Grand Rapids chamber said in a statement.
“What we all do over the next few weeks — you and your teams — is vital to protect lives and keeps our businesses open. This includes inside and especially outside of the workplace, where we are seeing a lot of the spread occur,” the chamber added.
Additionally, state officials said the restrictions are crucial to prevent overwhelming the health care system.
“This is about protecting our frontline workers,” Khaldun said. “Some of our hospitals are just days away from being overwhelmed.”
Michigan Health and Hospital Association CEO Brian Peters said he supports the administration’s “strong and swift response.” The Michigan Community College Association, Michigan Association of State Universities and Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities also support the new measures.
“Community spread is rising rapidly across the state, meaning healthcare workers are being exposed and leaving hospitals with strained capacity,” Peters said in a statement. “The faster we can squash this surge, the faster we can safely resume our lives and livelihoods. Hospitals are asking for all of Michigan to unite against COVID-19.”
Health care leaders across the state last week sounded the alarm about the surge in COVID-19 cases that’s pushing hospitals to capacity and stretching thin their staff. Spectrum Health President and CEO Tina Freese Decker said that at the present rate, the health system’s hospitals would hit capacity “in a matter of days.”
As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surged since early October, some hospitals have re-imposed or added new visitor restrictions.
Spectrum Health put new visitor restrictions in place Thursday at its 13 hospitals across the region. They include no in-person visits for COVID-19 patients, one adult family member or visitor in intensive care units (ICUs) from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., one adult family member or visitor for surgical patients in waiting rooms during hospital surgeries, one adult visitor for patients with cognitive impairments, and one at physician offices, urgent care, surgical and endoscopy centers.
On Monday, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s implements new visitor restrictions, citing the recent surge on COVID-19 cases.
Mercy Health Saint Mary’s no-visitor policy includes exemptions that allow one adult visitor in “special extenuating circumstances,” two visitors during childbirth and one afterward, and two visitors a day in the neonatal intensive care unit.
MiBiz Senior Reporter Mark Sanchez contributed to this report.