12 takeaways from Whitmer’s COVID briefing: Michigan restrictions loosened

Michigan loosens restrictions on restaurants, nursing homes, entertainment venues, more

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a March 2, 2021, COVID-19 briefing.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a March 2, 2021, COVID-19 briefing. (WDIV)

LANSING, Mich. – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer provided an update Tuesday on the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan -- loosening restrictions on restaurants and several other parts of the economy.

Here are our takeaways from the Tuesday (March 2) briefing:

Indoor dining rules

Starting Friday (March 5) and lasting until April 19, Michigan restaurants and bars will be allowed to fill up to 50% capacity (up from 25%), with a maximum of 100 people, Whitmer announced.

The curfew for indoor dining is now 11 p.m., an hour later than previously.

Groups are still limited to six people per table, and all tables have to be at least six feet apart, Whitmer said. Customers must still wear masks when they’re not seated at their tables.

Nursing homes

Michigan will now allow visitation at nursing homes, the governor announced.

“We know that this virus has taken a disproportionate toll on our seniors, and the isolation and the time apart have been taxing on everyone, with loved ones in long-term care facilities,” Whitmer said.

Under the new guidelines, family members can visit relatives in nursing homes after receiving a negative COVID-19 test.

Retail restrictions

Retail businesses can now allow customers up to 50% capacity, starting Friday.

The previous order capped retail capacity at 30%.

“Of course there is a limitation -- we’re doing this incrementally,” Whitmer said. “But these are all the places where we can safely do more.”

Gyms

Michigan gyms can now operate at 30% capacity.

Workout stations have to remain at least six feet apart, to allow for social distancing.

Gymnasiums, fitness centers, exercise studios, tracks, sports complexes, pools, yoga studios, dance studios, gymnastics studios, cycling studios and trampoline parks are permitted under the guidelines.

Venues

Bowling alleys, movie theaters and entertainment venues are allowed to fill up to 50% capacity, with a maximum of 300 people, state officials said.

Indoor Michigan casinos can now fill up to 30% capacity.

Sports stadiums and arenas with a maximum seating capacity of 10,000 people or fewer can have up to 375 fans in attendance.

Sports stadiums and arenas with a maximum seating capacity of more than 10,000 people can have up to 750 fans in attendance.

Gatherings

Indoor gatherings of people from different households at places like banquet halls can now reach up to 25 people, Whitmer announced. Small public gatherings had previously been banned.

Outdoor public gatherings are now allowed to have up to 300 people.

Whitmer said indoor residential gatherings will now allow up to 15 people and three different households. Previously, such gatherings were capped at 10 people and two households.

People can now gather outside with up to 50 people.

Why restrictions were loosened

New MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel spoke about why Michigan decided to loosen these COVID-19 restrictions.

“We have seen some of our key metrics continue to decline over the previous seven weeks,” Hertel said.

Hertel said case rates in Michigan are similar to what officials saw last fall, but the continuing trends of decline in positivity, hospitalization and case rates allowed further re-engagement.

“We know when we loosen restrictions, we will probably see cases rise again,” Hertel said. “My hope is that we will see, perhaps, a continued plateau, maybe a slight increase, but then a decrease and then we can continue to loosen those restrictions moving forward.”

Vaccinations

Michigan has administered 2,269,495 vaccines to residents across the state, and that number continues to increase, Whitmer said.

The total number of vaccinations is up from 1,942,759 last Wednesday (Feb. 24).

Michigan is No. 9 nationwide for total number of vaccines administered, according to the governor.

“This is truly a remarkable achievement,” Whitmer said of the approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine being manufactured in Grand Rapids. “It is a proud, proud moment for our state, with two of the three vaccines being made right here in Michigan by Michigan workers.”

Michigan will receive an additional 82,000 vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, she said.

Whitmer said it’s a “miracle of science” that three effective COVID vaccines have already been approved less than a year after the first cases of the virus were confirmed in Michigan.

COVID metrics

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical director of MDHHS, provided another update on the state’s most important COVID-19 metrics.

Michigan’s case rate is at 91.2 cases per million population, a number that has been declining for seven weeks now. Last week, it dipped below 100 cases per million people for the first time since the fall peak.

“We are now seeing a plateau in our case rates,” Khaldun said.

The Saginaw and Traverse City regions have seen a small growth in their case rates, she said.

The state’s positivity rate rose this week for the first time in weeks, up to 3.7%. That’s only a 0.2% increase, but it ends Michigan’s streak of decreasing positivity.

“This is similar to where we were in the beginning of October,” Khaldun said.

The percentage of hospital beds with COVID-19 patients in them statewide is down to 3.9% -- down a full percentage point since last week. That number has been steadily declining since the fall peak.

“Our case count and positivity rates remain among the lowest in the nation,” Whitmer said.

The number of outbreaks is down from 631 to 565, local health departments report.

Here’s a look at Michigan’s metrics from a week ago:

  • Case rate: 95 cases per million population
  • Positivity rate: 3.5%
  • Hospitalization rate: 4.9%

B117 variant

Michigan has confirmed 422 cases of the COVID-19 B117 variant.

About two-thirds of those cases have been associated with an outbreak at a correctional facility, Khaldun said.

There have been other cases of the variant identified around the case in which officials don’t know how it was transmitted, she said. That means there is likely “undetected spread occurring in the community.”

Last week, Michigan had confirmed 314 cases of the variant across 19 counties.

“We know the new, more easily transmitted B117 variant is present, and if that variant becomes more prevalent across the state, we could see a more rapid increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths,” Khaldun said.

Robert Gordon resignation

Whitmer was asked about former MDHHS Director Robert Gordon’s abrupt resignation. The question comes after the public learned Gordon and his deputy director received a separation agreement that included a nondisclosure clause.

“Is it common practice to pay state employees upwards of $150,000 after that?” Whitmer was asked.

The governor first said the pandemic has been challenging for everyone, including government employees. She said Gordon and his team were instrumental in the way Michigan battled COVID-19, saving thousands of lives.

“Robert Gordon and his team were an incredible important part of our response, and I appreciated his service to our state,” Whitmer said.

She said separation agreements are common in the public and private sectors when someone in a leadership position leaves an organization. But she said due to the nature of the agreement, there isn’t much more she can disclose.

“There were not any improprieties with Director Gordon’s work,” Whitmer said. “It’s simply that he tendered his resignation, and I accepted it, and I appointed a new director, Elizabeth Hertel, who has hit the ground running. She’s doing incredible work, and she needed to put her own team together at MDHHS so that we can stay laser focused on ramping up our vaccine effort and end this pandemic and get back to life as normal sooner.

“So I am going to have to respect the nature of the separation agreement, but I’ll say that I did really appreciate Robert’s work, and I wish him well in the future.”

‘Hush money’?

Michigan Republicans allege the money given to Gordon was “hush money,” but Whitmer said that’s not the case.

“I explained the nature of a separation agreement,” Whitmer said. “We have been through a lot over the last year. It has taken a toll. The former director resigned, I accepted it and we are continuing to move forward because we’ve got a lot of tough work to do.”

“Was it hush money?” a reporter asked.

“I really bristle at that characterization,” Whitmer said. “The nature of a separation agreement when someone in a leadership position leaves is that there are terms to it and you can’t share every term to it, and that’s simply what it is.”


About the Author:

Derick is a Senior Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.