Whitmer ups restaurant capacity limit, loosens other restrictions

Coronavirus

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday loosened coronavirus restrictions, raising the capacity cap on restaurants from 25% to 50% and allowing more visits at nursing homes.

The updated restaurant and public place guidance goes into effect Friday, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel announced at a Tuesday press conference alongside the governor.

“The continuing trend of decline in our case rates, our positivity rates and the ability for our hospitals to care for individuals when they need care really led us to looking at the orders that we had in place and deciding that we were in a position where we could loosen some of these restrictions a little bit further,” Hertel said. “We know when we loosen restrictions we will probably see cases rise again. My hope is that we will see perhaps a continued plateau, maybe a slight increase but then a decrease and that we can continue to loosen those restrictions moving forward.”

Restaurants and bars will now be allowed to work at 50% capacity with a limit of 100 customers. The curfew has been shifted from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tables must be 6 feet apart with no more than six people per table.

The updated guidance, currently scheduled to run through April 19, also includes a number of other changes:

Indoor residential gatherings may now include members of three households rather than two, with a cap of 15 people. Outdoor residential gatherings may now include up to 50 people.

Effective immediately, nursing homes may have visitors if they haven’t had a confirmed COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks. Visitors must have a rapid antigen test come back negative, must wear masks and must maintain a 6-foot distance whenever possible. MDHHS said it could make the change because all residents of skilled nursing homes have at least been offered their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“This is good news,” Whitmer said of the loosened restrictions, but also said the state’s residents must “redouble our efforts” to limit the spread of the virus by wearing a mask in public, practicing social distancing and washing hands frequently. “We know that these are the three pillars of pandemic public health and they’re not going away.”

The Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, a bar and restaurant advocacy group, praised the larger capacity limit but also said the 100-person cap was ‘disappointing.’

“Larger establishments with greater capacity limits have more space to spread patrons out. If people are abiding by social distancing rules, there’s no need for an arbitrary cap for any establishment regardless of size,” MLBA Executive Director Scott Ellis said in a statement.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, added in a statement that the updated guidance was “woefully inadequate” and pointed out the rules are still stronger than most of our Midwest neighbors. He also criticized the governor for not being transparent enough about the method and cadence of her orders.

Also Tuesday, Whitmer announced the creation of a new work group that will offer her recommendations on safety in office buildings that have been remote since the start of the pandemic.

TUESDAY VIRUS DATA

Michigan on Tuesday reported 1,067 more confirmed cases of the virus and 24 more related deaths. Of the 24 deaths, 12 were discovered in a routine review of death certificates to find any that had not already been reported to the state.

The update brings the total number of cases in the state to 590,217 since the virus was first detected here nearly a year ago and the total number of related deaths to 15,558.

On Monday, labs tested 18,894 samples for the virus and 944, or 5%, were positive. The number of positive tests is not the same as the number of new cases because people may be tested more than once. Additionally, testing numbers are from a single calendar date, while the number of new cases lists the increase since the last time the state compiled the data; these two time frames do not match up precisely.

Kent County reported one more death for a total of 655. It also reported 88 more cases for a total of 48,976.

Three other West Michigan counties also reported additional deaths:

  • Barry County: One more death for 43 total; 3,436 total confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic.
  • Mecosta County: One more death for 20 total; 1,924 confirmed cases.
  • Ottawa County: One more death for 316 total; 21,102 confirmed cases.

Wayne County, hit hardest by the virus, recorded four more deaths for 3,928 total and reported 209 more confirmed cases for a total of 95,049. Neighboring Oakland County has had 64,735 confirmed cases (125 more than the previous day) and 1,891 deaths (three more). Macomb County has had 55,362 cases (91 more) and 1,867 deaths (four more).

METRICS LEVEL OFF

The state’s case and positivity rates have recently plateaued. Hospitalizations also seem to have plateaued, but fewer than 4% of all hospital beds in the state are serving COVID-19 patients.

The number of outbreaks being tracked by public health officials has declined; long-term care facilities still make up the largest percentage of ongoing outbreaks.

The rate of deaths, the metric that changes last, is still trending down and is better than it has been since mid-October.

“Overall, we are at a critical time in our fight against this pandemic,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said at the governor’s press conference. “Our case rates have dropped significantly since the fall surge but they are still higher than they were last summer and they are no longer dropping.”

She also expressed concern about the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant of the virus. Data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Michigan has recorded more than 420 cases of that variant, which is expected to be the nation’s dominant strain by the end of the month.

“About two-thirds of those (B.1.1.7 cases) have been associated with an outbreak at a correctional facility,” Khaldun said, referencing the large number of cases at Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia. “But there are other places in the state where we do not know where those individuals became infected with the variant, which means there is likely some undetected spread occurring in the community.”

Public health officials have stressed the importance of getting tested to track both the variant and the current dominant strain of the virus.

“If (the B.1.1.7) variant becomes more prevalent across the state, we could see a rapid increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths,” Khaldun said. “This pandemic is not over and we must all continue to remain vigilant.”

VACCINE UPDATE

The good news, Khaldun said, is that the vaccine rollout is moving along. Michigan has received about 2.9 million doses.

While the state doesn’t currently expect to be able to open up vaccinations to the lowest risk groups of people until July or August, there is hope that the addition of Johnson & Johnson single-shot doses to the supply could speed up that timetable. In addition to requiring only one shot versus Pfizer and Moderna’s two, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can be stored at warmer temperatures.

It does have a lower efficacy rate than the other two, but health experts say some of that can be attributed to its development timeline.

“This Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested after the emergent of some mutations so from that perspective, it didn’t have quite the same comparison group as the other two vaccines did, and also the countries that it was tested, they did have more of these mutations already present,” Metro Health – University of Michigan Health chief medical officer Dr. Ronald Grifka told News 8 Monday.

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