Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Sunday that Michigan is reinstating some restrictions intended to fight the spread of COVID-19 as the state faces record high rates of the virus.
The orders temporarily stop in-person instruction at high schools and colleges, halt high school athletics, and close bar and restaurant dining rooms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and casinos.
The restrictions, introduced by Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon, take effect Wednesday and last at least three weeks, through Dec. 8.
Michigan residents are also being told to work from home unless it is impossible to do so.
“We are in the worst moment of this pandemic to date. The situation has never been more dire. We are at the precipice and we need to take some action,” Whitmer said. “This is the worst public health emergency our nation has faced in over a century, and our response has got to reflect the same level of urgency.”
Barber shops, gyms, retail stores and preschool through eighth-grade schools are allowed to remain open under the orders.
Whitmer said that temporarily closing businesses to get case rates under control will contribute to their long-term success.
“Getting this health crisis under control is absolutely essential to getting our economic crisis under control. If our public isn’t healthy, our economy isn’t healthy,” Whitmer said. “We have to beat this virus to strengthen our economy.”
Whitmer said the decision to allow in-person instruction below the high school level to continue is due to the fact that more outbreaks have been linked to high schools and in-person instruction is more important for younger students’ development.
Michigan has broken its record for daily cases of COVID-19 ten times in the last month and has shattered its weekly case record for each of the last five weeks.
Whitmer said models show Michigan could soon see up to 1,000 deaths per week from the virus at the trajectory the state is currently on.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, warned that several hospitals in the state are just days away from being overwhelmed.
Khaldun, an emergency medicine physician, said she and her colleagues – who are often the last people patients see before going on a ventilator and who often have to make the call letting relatives know a loved one has passed away – are worn out by the mental toll of the pandemic.
“These are not just numbers. This is not just about projections and graphs. This is about real people,” Khaldun said. “People who are mothers and fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, people’s children.”
Khaldun said last week that contact tracers are struggling to keep up due to the sharp increase in cases and warned that “we are potentially looking at some of the deadliest, most grim days of this entire pandemic ahead of us if we do not collectively change our behaviors.”
Under the orders introduced Sunday, indoor residential gatherings are limited to no more than ten people total from no more than two households, including over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Members of those two households can form a “social pod” together, in which members agree to limit their in-person activities to only each other.
Whitmer and Khaldun strongly urged Michigan residents to not hold in-person gatherings for Thanksgiving.
“Think about your favorite Thanksgivings and the loved ones with whom you spent them,” Whitmer said. “As hard as it is not seeing them this Thanksgiving, imagine how much harder it would be if you weren’t able to see them for a future holiday ever again.”
“I hate to say it, but we know that some people will gather anyway. And odds are that some of these gatherings will spread COVID and contribute to the loss of loved ones,” Whitmer added. “It’s just the hard, sad reality of this virus. And I know none of us wants to be the person who has to live with the guilt of unwittingly brining COVID to someone that we love.”
Mayor Sheldon Neeley announced last week that Flint City Hall would shut its doors to the public again starting Monday due to the surge in cases.
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in October that a 1945 state law from which Whitmer’s previous executive orders had drawn their power was unconstitutional.
Democrats flipped party control of the Michigan Supreme Court in the Nov. 3 election, taking a 4-3 majority that begins in January.
The MDHHS orders draw authority from a separate law that was not at question in that lawsuit, but immediately faced backlash from Republicans in the Michigan Legislature.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a statement that “we are disappointed that Gov. Whitmer chose to go it alone, again.”
The Legislature has not passed legislation to address the recent surge in cases and last week cancelled session and committee meetings after multiple lawmakers tested positive for the virus.
Whitmer said the Legislature is “an important part of government,” but said they have not acted quickly enough to get the pandemic under control.
“The Legislature was designed to be a deliberative body. The executive office has vested in it the ability to act swiftly under urgent circumstances. That’s where we are,” Whitmer said. “We are using powers, epidemic powers, given to the Health and Human Services Director by the Legislature in reaction to the last pandemic we were in. The Supreme Court also said these are the powers to use. That is what we are doing.”
Whitmer said the actions of Michigan residents during the three-week period will determine whether the orders can be lifted or will need to be extended or strengthened.
“My hope is that everyone makes smart choices to keep yourselves, and our loved ones, and our frontline workers, and our communities safe,” Whitmer said. “I hope that you’ll double down so we can avoid a stay-home order.”
Gordon said there is light at the end of the tunnel and noted that short-term actions now can determine how bad the second wave of the pandemic will be.
“Hope is on the horizon. A vaccine will come. Spring will come. This is not forever. What will be forever will be the deaths of loved ones if we do nothing,” Gordon said. “If we act now, we can prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed, we can prevent our frontline heroes from being lost, and we can prevent even greater consequences for jobs and our economy.”
Michigan had 251,813 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state as of Saturday, and 7,994 people have died from the virus.
Of the confirmed cases, 8,815 are in Genesee County, and 344 people in the county have died from the virus.