One of the state’s most tourist-dependent areas got a boost Monday – just in time for the coming Memorial Day weekend – when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order allowing retail businesses, office work that can’t be done remotely and restaurants and bars (with limited seating) to reopen in two of the state’s eight regions.
The two regions are both in the northern part of the state — specifically, MERC regions 6 (the Greater Traverse City area) and 8 (the upper peninsula), as detailed in the governor’s MI Safe Start Plan to re-engage Michigan’s economy.
While she didn’t announce any loosening of restrictions in the lower part of the state, Whitmer did say she’s “hopeful” she’ll be able to announce more later in the week. She said those decisions will obviously depend on continued flattening of the curve.
“If we get this right, we can take the next steps,” Whitmer said.
The partial reopening up north takes effect Friday, May 22. At her Monday coronavirus briefing, Whitmer said that officials in cities, villages and townships may “choose to take a more cautious course;” the order, she said, does not abridge their authority to restrict the operations of restaurants or bars, including limiting such establishments to outdoor seating.
“This is a big step, but we must all remember to continue doing our part to protect ourselves and our families from the spread of COVID-19,” Whitmer said. “It’s crucial that all businesses do everything in their power to protect their workers, customers, and their families. And as we approach Memorial Day weekend, I encourage everyone to be smart and be safe. My team and I will continue to work around the clock to protect the people of Michigan.”
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Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, pointed out that lowering COVID-19 trends are making the latest reopenings possible. Michigan has had 51,915 cases and 4,915 deaths from COVID-19, and the 11 deaths reported Sunday were the lowest daily number recorded since the crisis began.
She also pointed out that testing has increased to better than 15,000 per day, reaching a high of more than 16,000.
“The data shows that these regions in Michigan are seeing consistent encouraging trends when it comes to the number of cases, deaths, and the percent of tests that are positive for COVID-19,” Khaldun said. “It’s important to note that these businesses must take special precautions to protect Michiganders. I also encourage everyone to continue to wear a mask in public, maintain a six-foot distance from others, and to remain vigilant in washing their hands often. This will help prevent a second surge in cases in our state.”
Bill Hallan, president and CEO of the Michigan Retailers Association, called Whitmer’s move a “great first step,” saying the association appreciates “that the governor has used a regional approach, as we suggested, to open retail in some areas of the state before the Memorial Day weekend.
“This is a good step, but many retailers who aren’t yet allowed to open are struggling to stay in business,” Hallan said. “Employers want to reopen safely and responsibly and are already prepared to follow the worker safety requirements that the governor outlined. We strongly hope retailers in southern and mid-Michigan can reopen soon, and we’ll continue working with the governor’s office to make that happen.”
Whitmer also signed an executive order establishing safety measures reopening businesses are going to have to adhere to in order to return to business. Among other things, businesses need to provide COVID-19 training to workers that covers, at a minimum, workplace infection-control practices, the proper use of PPE, steps workers must take to notify the business or operation of any symptoms of COVID-19 or a suspected or confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19, and how to report unsafe working conditions.
The state has also created a director of COVID-19 workplace safety to help coordinate safety guidelines.
“The governor’s actions make sure that as we reengage our economy, workplaces are safe for employees and customers,” said Jeff Donofrio, Director of the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. “The director ensure workers and employers know the latest ways to keep us safe.”
Under Executive Order 2020-91, businesses that resume in-person work must, among other things, develop a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan and make it available to employees and customers by June 1.
Restaurants and bars will also have to limit capacity to 50% of their normal seating, to keep groups at least six feet from one another, to require their servers to wear face coverings, and to follow rigorous disinfection protocols.
Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, said the reopening of bars and restaurants marks “an important first step of reintegrating restaurants into the daily fabric of our lives.”
“Restaurants in the U.P. and northern Michigan understand that with their opportunity comes an extraordinary responsibility to operate in a manner that ensures the safety of their guests and their employees,” Winslow said. “I believe they are up to the challenge.”
Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers was “thankful” Whitmer is “providing us with opportunities to slowly open up again.” He pointed out that city officials have been working around the clock on safety measures.
He also pointed out the city is working on reopening its popular farmers markets, providing social distancing opportunities. Another safety precaution being considered in the city, which celebrated its 125th anniversary Monday, is the closing of Front Street to auto and truck traffic to make it a pedestrian zone to allow shops more space for people.
“All regions of Michigan have been affected by COVID-19, and Up North, we want to support the governor by cautiously opening up some of our economy resources,” Carruthers said. “However, in doing so, we must be mindful that wearing masks and continuing to practice social distancing is a must to make this work. Stopping the spread of this virus is still key and if we can’t, then we will have to close it down again.”
Region 6 in the governor’s MI Safe Start Plan includes the Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Crawford, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Presque Isle and Emmet counties.
Region 8 in the governor’s MI Safe Start Plan includes Gogebic, Ontonagon, Houghton, Keweenaw, Iron, Baraga, Dickinson, Marquette, Menominee, Delta, Alger, Schoolcraft, Luce, Mackinac and Chippewa counties.