LANSING, Mich. – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer provided an update on COVID-19 in Michigan on Wednesday, extending restrictions, offering a possible reopen date for restaurants and talking about vaccine distribution, unemployment payments and more.
Here are the top 10 takeaways from Wednesday’s briefing.
MDHHS order extended
Michigan has extended the COVID-19 restrictions in Michigan through the end of January, but the order has been revised to allow more forms of physical activity.
The announcement was made by Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon, along with Whitmer and MDHHS chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun.
The order, which was scheduled to expire Friday (Jan. 15), has been extended until Jan. 31. Restaurants are not allowed to open for indoor dining and entertainment venues can’t offer concessions during that time, Gordon said.
Indoor residential gatherings remain limited to 10 people and two households. MDHHS continues to urge families to avoid indoor gatherings or to pick a single other household to interact with consistent with guidance already released by the department.
More physical activities permitted
Michiganders are allowed to participate in indoor group exercise and non-contact sports, Gordon said. Those types of activities will be allowed starting Saturday (Jan. 16).
Physical activities that allow Michiganders to wear masks and maintain social distancing are allowed, Gordon said.
“We are reopening cautiously because caution is working to save lives,” Gordon said. “The new order allows group exercise and non-contact sports, always with masks and social distancing, because in the winter it’s not as easy to get out and exercise and physical activity is important for physical and mental health. We are glad that we made it through the holidays without a big increase in numbers, but there are also worrying signs in the new numbers.”
Sports that require contact are still not allowed.
“If numbers continue to head in the right direction, our hope is that we will be able to resume indoor dining with strong safety measures in place on Feb. 1,” Whitmer said.
Depending on how COVID-19 cases trend in the next two weeks, restaurants might be able to resume indoor dining with certain restrictions. Those rules would include a mask mandate, capacity rules and a curfew, Whitmer said.
It would be the first time restaurants can welcome customers inside since Nov. 17, the day before the MDHHS “pause” went into effect.
Factors to determine whether restaurants can reopen
While the hope is that restaurants will be able to reopen in about two weeks, Whitmer said her administration will continue to monitor certain trends before a final decision is made.
“The factors we’re looking at when making decisions are falling cases, percent of COVID hospital beds available, and following positive test rates,” Whitmer said.
Those three factors have been cited by Whitmer, Khaldun and state officials throughout the pandemic, especially when discussing restrictions and the possibility of reopening closed sectors of the economy.
COVID numbers plateauing
Khaldun updated Michigan’s most critical COVID-19 metrics, and expressed some concern that the steady decline in cases has started to plateau.
Michigan is currently at 265 cases per million population, which is up from the low point of 239 cases per million since the MDHHS order went into effect.
The case rate has increased recently and “may be plateauing,” Khaldun said. She said most regions in the state have case rates north of 300 per million population.
The positivity rate is at 9.1% and has been between 8.1% and 10% over the past week, according to Khaldun.
This is the first time since mid-November that both the case rate and positivity rate have changed direction.
Right now, 12.1% of available inpatient beds in Michigan are filled with COVID-19 patients, she said. That percentage is decreasing, but the rate of decrease is slowing, suggesting a possible plateau, Khaldun said.
On Tuesday, the state of Michigan reported 1,994 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 100 additional deaths. Overall, the state has identified 525,612 cases of the virus and 13,501 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Feds release doses of COVID vaccines
Whitmer said President Donald Trump’s administration has agreed to release millions of doses of the COVID vaccine that were being held back.
“I am very pleased to report that they have granted our request,” Whitmer said.
Whitmer and other governors from around the neighbors made the formal request last week.
Meijer chosen as COVID-19 vaccine partner
Michigan has chosen Meijer as the initial pharmacy partner to help the state administer the COVID-19 vaccines.
“Meijer has 120 pharmacies across our state, and they will help us get closer to our goal,” Whitmer said.
Unemployment payments begin
Michigan has started making the $300 weekly COVID-19 unemployment payments to eligible residents who were affected by the pandemic.
According to the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, the state started issuing the payments to around 365,000 claimants this weekend.
“This is good news for workers across the state who have lost their jobs as a result of this pandemic,” Whitmer said Wednesday. “It will help people put food on the table for themselves and their families, to help them pay rent and utility bills.”
The Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payments run from Dec. 27, 2020, through March 13, 2021. They offer an additional $300 in benefits per week to Michigan claimants who were negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Employee assistance grants
Whitmer announced employee assistance grants will be made available for people whose employment at entertainment and recreational venues and restaurants was affected by COVID-19.
“This grant program puts dollars in the pockets of Michiganders who work in hospitality and entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food service sectors, as well as the gyms and fitness centers,” Whitmer said.
She said the program will help offset some of the financial loss for those workers due to layoffs or hours reductions.
Eligible residents can apply for one-time grants of up to $1,650.
There’s a 10-day window to apply for the grant: from Jan. 15 through Jan. 25. Click here for more details about the application process.
Applications will be processed through February, and payments will be issued in March, Whitmer said.
This money comes from the stimulus plan announced in November.
More support possible for small businesses
On Thursday, the Michigan Strategic Fund Board will meet to consider authorizing $58.5 million in additional COVID-19 relief for small businesses, Whitmer said.
The money is designed to help businesses pay their employees and prepare to reopen when the time comes, she said.
It includes $55 million for the Michigan Small Business Survival Grant program.
“This support is part of the bipartisan stimulus package I signed into law last month,” Whitmer said.
New COVID variant still a concern
One key variable in the future of Michigan restrictions is a new variant of COVID-19 that’s been detected in several other states.
“We have not identified the new, more easily transmitted mutation of the virus in Michigan, yet,” Khaldun said. “That new strain is present in several other states, and it may be present in Michigan. We just haven’t identified it yet.”
That variant has also increased the spread of COVID-19 in other countries, including the UK.
“When this appears in Michigan, it’s going to be a very concerning moment,” Whitmer said.
Khaldun reiterated the importance of following COVID-19 safety protocols to avoid another spike in cases, especially since the arrival of that new variant is seemingly inevitable.
Not enough vaccines
Michigan moved to a new phase of vaccinations Monday, allowing people 65 and older to start making appointments.
Phase 1B of the vaccination process also includes police officers, first responders, frontline state and federal workers, jail and prison staff members, Pre-K through 12th grade teachers and childcare providers.
Many vaccine administrators have said they don’t have enough doses to start vaccinating people in phase 1B, and the state acknowledged that not everyone from the first phase has been vaccinated.
Khaldun said it might be a long time before everyone who wants a vaccine to get one.
“We know that there’s not enough vaccine available in the state to be able to vaccinate all of these populations, and it will take several months to complete at the current rate of vaccines that we are receiving,” Khaldun said.
That means there aren’t enough appointments available right now, but state officials are working to obtain more doses and create more locations for administration.
Preparing to protect state Capitol
Whitmer said she wants to assure Michiganders that threats made toward the state Capitol will not be taken lightly.
She said she has had conversations with Michigan State Police and the Michigan National Guard, as well as local police in Lansing, about security.
“I’ve got confidence in the work that we are doing, and we take it seriously,” Whitmer said.
There’s no impending threat to the Capitol building, but the state is prepared to act accordingly, the governor said.