The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced Wednesday that some pandemic restrictions are being loosened. Legislative Republicans, however, continue to push for a full reopening and have threatened to hold up Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s appointees and withhold federal COVID-19 relief dollars.
“We are starting with a cautious approach,” DHHS Director Robert Gordon said at a noon press conference. “We will be permitting indoor athletics and group exercise, provided there is appropriate social distancing and mask wearing.”
The move will go into effect Jan 16 and continue until at least Jan. 31.
But indoor dining will remain off the table until at least Feb. 1, Gordon and Whitmer said. And it’s that restriction that is riling up the restaurant industry. In turn, restaurant owners have been pushing lawmakers to advocate for removing the ban altogether.
State House Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) said last week he “can’t envision starting conversations about how to allocate additional federal COVID-19 relief funds until the governor shows more willingness to restore the economy and a sense of normalcy.”
The federal COVID dollars include millions in additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food benefits, unemployment benefits and funding for vaccine distribution.
On Wednesday morning, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Stamas (R-Midland) called on his colleague, Sen. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) who chairs the Senate Advice and Consent Committee, to reject all of Whitmer’s appointees until “Whitmer and her administration have ended all of the shutdowns and reopened the state.”
Stamas is a restaurant owner impacted by the ban on indoor dining, which has become a big flashpoint for Republicans.
Republicans last term rejected two of Whitmer’s Department of Natural Resources appointments in a partisan clash with some senators objecting to a candidate’s support of gun control.
“It’s really disappointing,” said Whitmer at the press conference of the threats. “It’s really irresponsible.”
Michigan has more than 525,000 COVID-19 cases and 13,500 deaths as of Tuesday.
Whitmer noted that the state is rushing to stave off a possible explosion of new coronavirus cases driven by a newly identified variant of coronavirus that spreads more quickly.
“When it appears in Michigan,” she said, “it will be very concerning.”
That variant first appeared in the U.K., and has been identified in five states in the United States so far. Michigan has not identified a case of the variant yet, although it has stood up state labs to test for it and other troublesome variants.
With a plateauing number of new cases and percent positivity as well as hospitalizations, Whitmer and Gordon argue “the pause is working,” but it’s not time to let up by loosen restrictions on indoor dining.
“Indoor dining brings risks because it involves removing masks,” said Gordon.
In fact, a study published Nov. 23 in the Journal of Korean Medical Science tracked the case of a high school student contracted the virus after just five minutes of exposure and 20 feet distance from the infected person, in a restaurant. That added to a growing body of evidence that air flow and capacity play a significant role in in-door dining related infections.
“Now is not the time to let down our guard,” said Gordon, echoing comments from Whitmer.
The governor also pointed out that her administration has helped facilitate millions of dollars in support dollars through various economic development organizations to support the restaurant industry. And she also spoke about the launch of one time cash grants of $1,650 that will be made available through an application process for restaurant industry workers.