Lansing, MI–Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel announced Tuesday that restaurants and bars will be allowed to double their capacity starting Friday.

The increase to 50% capacity for indoor dining, up from 25%, is one of several regulations that have been eased in the latest emergency order, which takes effect at the end of the week and is scheduled to remain in place through April 19.

Changes in the order include:

  • Restaurants and bars can increase dining capacity to 50%, up to 100 people total. Tables must remain six feet apart and no more than six people should be seated at a table. A curfew remains in place but has been extended by an hour to 11 p.m.
  • Entertainment venues like movie theaters and bowling alleys can increase capacity to 50%, up to 300 people total.
  • Visitations at nursing homes will be allowed for up to two guests per resident. Each guest must first receive a negative COVID-19 test result and must agree to wear personal protective equipment. The facility must go 14 days without an outbreak for visitations to be allowed.
  • Indoor stadiums and arenas with a total seating capacity below 10,000 can seat 375 people. Stadiums and arenas with a total seating capacity above 10,000 can seat 750 people.
  • Retail shops can increase capacity to 50%, up from 30%.
  • Indoor residential gatherings will be allowed to have up to 15 people from a maximum of three separate households. Outdoor residential gatherings will be capped at 50 people.
  • Indoor public gatherings will be allowed to include up to 25 people. Outdoor public gatherings can have a maximum of 300 people.
  • Casinos will be allowed to operate at 30% capacity.
  • Gyms can operate at 30% capacity, but workout equipment must remain at least six feet apart.

Some businesses where people do not wear masks, like water parks, remain closed.

The additional economic re-engagements appear to contradict the advice of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, who warned earlier this week that we could lose our progress if faster-spreading variants of COVID-19 become prevalent.

“With these new statistics, I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19,” Walensky said.

Michigan currently has 422 known cases of the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19, the second highest in the nation behind only Florida.

“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Walensky said. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. Not when we are so close.”

But Michigan health officials pointed to three benchmarks they looked at in making the decision to make additional economic re-engagements: hospital capacity, overall case rates, and test positivity rates.

The number of hospital beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients is now at 3.9%, down from the state’s peak of 19.6% on Dec. 4.

Overall case rates are currently about 91.2 cases per million, similar to what they were in early October. The statewide seven-day average for daily cases rose to 1,107 cases on Monday, up from last week’s 845 average daily cases.

The test positivity rate is now at 3.7%, which is up from last week’s 3.5% but comparable to early October.

State health officials also pointed to the increasing rate of vaccinations as a promising sign.

That’s partially due to the Food and Drug Administration recently granting an emergency use authorization for a third COVID-19 vaccine, developed by Johnson & Johnson.

Michigan is scheduled to receive more than 82,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this weekend, Michigan’s chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, said.

Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one dose to be effective in stopping severe cases of COVID-19, greatly reducing the risk of hospitalization or death.

Additionally, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can be stored at regular refrigerator temperatures, making it easier for providers across the state to manage.

Khaldun said the new vaccine, like the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, is safe and effective, and everyone should get whichever one is available once they are eligible.

“It was studied in tens of thousand of people of different races and ethnicities, and it was found to be safe and effective,” Khaldun said. “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine will save your life if you get infected with COVID-19. In Michigan, we have lost over 15,500 lives due to this terrible virus. If people are offered this Johnson & Johnson vaccine, they should take it – because declining this vaccine, if it is offered to you, could be the difference between life and death.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called on the Michigan Legislature to fully allocate more than $5 billion of federal funds that were approved last year to address things like vaccine administration and increased testing and contact tracing.

“Washington didn’t send us this money to sit on it. They sent it to us because people need it,” Whitmer said.

Republican plans in the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate would instead allocate the funds quarterly. Funding for schools would only be distributed if Whitmer also signs a bill stripping MDHHS of the power to close school buildings in Michigan, and some of the funds would only be allocated to schools that return to fully in-person learning.

Under a bipartisan agreement signed last year, local school districts decide whether to return to in-person instruction, remain virtual, or adopt a hybrid model, while MDHHS retains the ability to close schools statewide if needed.

Whitmer had called for all schools to return to some form of in-person instruction by March 1.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said in a statement that the additional re-engagements announced Tuesday are “woefully inadequate.”

Under the Michigan Constitution, the Senate can block certain gubernatorial appointments within 60 session days of the appointments being made.

The Senate has rejected more than a dozen of Whitmer’s appointees en bloc to send the message that they are unhappy with the administration’s continued COVID-19 restrictions.

The Senate Advice and Consent Committee has set a hearing for March 4 to consider the appointment of Hertel as MDHHS Director. Hertel has the power to issue new emergency orders related to the pandemic, like the one announced today.

Hertel was appointed Jan. 22 after former MDHHS Director Robert Gordon abruptly resigned.

The Detroit News reported Monday that Gordon had received more than $155,000 as part of a separation deal that also included a provision requiring the two sides to maintain confidentiality about the circumstances leading to his resignation. The payout represents nine months of salary and health benefits.

Sarah Esty, a deputy director to Gordon, also signed a separation agreement, The Detroit News reported, though details of that agreement were not immediately available.

Asked about the agreements Tuesday, Whitmer said she could not provide many details due to the confidentiality requirement but noted that the pandemic has been hard on state employees and said there “were not any improprieties with Director Gordon’s work.”

Gordon issued a statement Tuesday, saying “I’ve served in government a long time, and I believe that elected chief executives need to make final decision about policy with confidential advice. They also need to be comfortable with their agency heads.”

“Since the pandemic began, many leadership changes have happened in other states. It’s no surprise they would happen in Michigan,” Gordon said.

Whitmer said she “bristles” at legislative Republicans’ characterization that the payment, paired with a confidentiality agreement, was “hush money.”

“I really bristle at that characterization. It is 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. That’s simply what it is,” Whitmer said.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in October that a 1945 state law from which Whitmer’s earliest executive orders addressing the pandemic 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 began in January.

The MDHHS orders draw authority from a separate law that was not at question in that lawsuit.

Michigan detected its first cases of COVID-19 in the state on March 10, 2020.

Michigan had 590,217 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state as of Tuesday, and 15,558 people have died from the virus.

Of the confirmed cases, 21,820 are in Genesee County, and 706 people in the county have died from the virus.

Andrew Roth is a reporter and photographer covering politics and policy in Michigan, as well technology, culture and their convergence. Andrew is a journalism student at Michigan State University and first...