Business groups urge Michigan governor to let offices reopen for in-person work

Interior designers Stephanie Jones, left, and Tara Martin, right, work in a conference room at the design firm Bergmeyer, Wednesday, July 29, 2020, at the company's offices, in Boston. To reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, the firm implemented one-way routes throughout the office, added higher cubicle walls, requires masks when not at the desk, added hand sanitizer stations and put in lots of signs to make sure rules are clear. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) (Steven Senne, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

LANSING, Mich. – Business groups on Thursday urged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to let employers reopen their offices for in-person work rather than lengthen a coronavirus-related restriction set to expire in mid-April.

In October, after a court ruling upended the Democratic governor's pandemic orders, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Administration issued six-month emergency rules to keep intact a requirement that employers prohibit in-person work to the extent that employees' activities can feasibly be completed remotely.

Jason Moon, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, which includes MIOSHA, said it is “very likely” the regulations will be extended while the agency writes permanent rules to supersede them.

Leaders of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and seven local chambers pointed to a decline in COVID-19 case rates in recent months and said manufacturers, heath providers and other businesses have shown in-person work is safe if protocols are followed.

Whitmer this week announced the further loosening of business capacity limits and the formation of a workgroup to assess and make recommendations for a phased return to office work.

“We're ready. Businesses are ready,” said Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick Baker. “I hope it's an authentic effort.”

The groups have formed a coalition, Reopen Michigan Safely, to press for a full reopening of all businesses. It said a pressing issue is the April 14 expiration of MIOSHA's COVID-19 workplace safety order, which the Whitmer administration is empowered to extend for an additional six months.

“There are many, many things that can be done productively virtually. There are frankly many things that frankly cannot be done productively virtually. What we're asking for here is — let our businesses and their employees work together on what the right approach is in each community and for each business,” said Warren Call, president and CEO of Traverse Connect.

The rules require employers to have a written coronavirus preparedness and response plan, and they outline infection-control, screening and other practices. Employers, for instance, must provide masks and mandate them when workers cannot consistently keep 6 feet apart.

The state has fined or cited about 125 employers for violations.

Sean Egan, the state's director of COVID-19 workplace safety, welcomed the business community's feedback and noted that the workgroup is being established. But he also said the regulations do not prohibit in-person work.

“Rather, they require employers to determine whether remote work for employees is feasible to help ensure that COVID-19 transmission is mitigated to the maximum extent possible,” he said.

Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said while many Michiganders already are going to work, some jobs do not require in-person work — which maximizes safety during the virus outbreak. The workgroup will include business and labor leaders, he said, adding that the administration is focused on ramping up vaccine distribution and supporting small businesses because “we are all anxious to return to life as normal.”

Starting Friday, restaurants and bars, now limited to 25% capacity inside, will have a 50% restriction — up to a maximum of 100 people. A 10 p.m. curfew will shift to 11 p.m. Stores will have a 50% capacity limit, up from 25%. Venues such as movie theaters, bowling alleys and banquet halls will also be able to have more people — up to 300 patrons within any distinct space inside or 1,000 outside.


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