Whitmer tightens COVID restrictions in Upper Peninsula as cases surge

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is reversing the reopening of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula by a phase due to a recent surge in coronavirus cases in the region, her office said Friday. 

Whitmer signed an executive order moving the region back to Phase 4 of the MI Safe Start Plan, effective at 12:01 a.m. Oct. 9, “although given the surge in cases everyone should make this transition as swiftly as possible.”

It was not immediately clear how Whitmer’s latest order would be affected by a state Supreme Court ruling that she did not have the legal authority to issue mandates related to the pandemic after April 30, when state lawmakers declined to extend the state of emergency in Michigan.

Whitmer’s office said late Friday the ruling won’t take effect for at least 21 days.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

The governor’s new order would require people who can perform work remotely to do so, require schools to enforce mask requirements in the classrooms, and limit indoor social gatherings and stores to the restrictions in place in most of the rest of the state.

“After seeing the increase in cases in the U.P. region over the past several weeks and consulting with medical experts, I have decided to take action to protect U.P. families and move the region back a phase,” Whitmer said in a statement. 

“I know this is hard. I know it will be an adjustment. But we can’t let our guard down. COVID-19 is still a very real threat to our families, frontline workers, and small businesses. Everyone should implement these changes as swiftly as possible.

She urged Michiganians to wear masks, calling them the “most effective weapon” against the virus. “This virus doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, a Republican or a Democrat, young or old. No one is immune,” she said. 

Statewide, six Michigan counties are at the highest risk level for COVID-19, and they are all in the Upper Peninsula, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute.

Those counties are Baraga, Delta, Dickinson, Houghton, Iron and Menominee. Of those, Iron County had the highest rate of infection over the past week, with an average 115 new cases a day per 100,000 people, followed by Delta County with an average 93 new cases a day per 100,000. 

Region 6, which covers 17 counties in northern Michigan, has not displayed a comparable increase in coronavirus cases and will remain in Phase 5, according to Whitmer’s order.

The Upper Peninsula had seen few coronavirus cases early in the pandemic,but state officials noted the region has had some of the highest case rates statewide in recent weeks.

But case count began to increase in late June, stayed elevated through mid-September and then began sharply increasing, “giving it right now the most concerning numbers in the state,” according to the governor’s office. 

It said the most recent case rate in the U.P., when adjusted for time lag, pegs the region at 283 absolute cases per million and a 5.1% positivity rate.For comparison, the statewide case rate in Michigan is 76 absolute cases per million.

A positivity rate above 3% is concerning to public health officials. That rate was rising in the U.P. despite more testing — an indicator of significant spread of infection.

State Rep. Beau M. LaFave, R-Iron Mountain, said Whitmer’s Friday order for the U.P. is moot because of Michigan Supreme Court ruling that curbs her emergency powers. 

“The phases are all unconstitutional. Businesses are going to have to continue to be smart,” he said. “Fortunately, the people of the Upper Peninsula have been social distancing since the 1800s. We like to live far apart from one another. If we wanted to be packed in like sardines, we would move to Chicago.”

LaFave acknowledged the U.P. has had a recent uptick in cases, including his own COVID-19 diagnosis that was confirmed Tuesday. He said he’s had “moderate” symptoms including “serious” fatigue, muscle aches, sweats and mild congestion. 

“The problem with the orders as they were drafted is all we did was delay people getting sick. Now, we are getting the first wave of the virus in the Upper Peninsula, and instead of getting it in the warm months, we’re going to get it in the cold months, which is not preferable,” LaFave said. 

“Our doctors know what to do. Our hospitals now the personal protective equipment and ventilators they need, thanks to the leadership of President Trump.”

State Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, doesn’t think reinstituting the restrictions in the U.P. was warranted at this time, which he said was frustrating, he said.

“At least not by any of the data points that I have,” he said. “Yeah, we know cases are on the increase up here. But the health care systems, the hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.”

McBroom also said he’s frustrated as an elected leader in the region to not be included in any discussions to make the decision.

“From what I’m hearing from medical folks, the prime drives for the increase right now are not large-scale gatherings but the small-scale gatherings that are not affected by this order.”

He said he’d like to know more about the benchmarks and goals that Whitmer and her staff are using to measure success and failure amid the pandemic.

“What line did we suddenly cross and how will we know when we cross back over to the other side? This has been one of the critical problems for months now. We aren’t privy to same data she is looking at,” McBroom said.

“Why today? Why isn’t this effective on Monday if this is really an emergency? Is it really too much to share those data points?”

Under Whitmer’s new restrictions, use of masks by students in the classroom — even for younger students — is required under Phase 4 of the state’s MI Safe Start Plan.

Also, social gatherings in the U.P. will be limited to 10 people or fewer for indoor residential events. Gatherings indoors outside of the home may permit more people depending on the size of the facility and subject to new formulas in the state’s order.  

Stores under 50,000 square feet must restrict the number of people inside (including employees)  to 25% of total occupancy limits. 

Larger stores must limit customers to no more than 20 people per 1,000 square feet of customer floor space, and allow two hours a week of dedicated shopping time for vulnerable populations. 

The classroom mask requirement is a major change for schools, McBroom said, noting that students currently are only required to wear them coming and going, such as in the hallways or on the bus.

“I’ve heard from teachers who are not anxious to enforce that. I personally think that’s one of the more scientifically “unbacked” changes that’s being made,” he said.

“We know kids are unlikely to get it, and if they do are considered not to be very good vectors of it.”

Last week, Michigan recorded its highest weekly number of cases, 5,557, since the first week of May when it recorded 6,004 infections.

The state confirmed 780 new cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths Friday. The state’s total known cases is nearly 126,400, the death toll at 6,788, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

The Upper Peninsula has reported only two coronavirus deaths, according to state data. As of Friday, hospitals in the region had reported 27 COVID inpatients with confirmed or suspected cases, five in intensive care and one on a ventilator. 

“We are aware of several outbreaks involving college students, as well as outbreaks associated with K-12 schools and social events in the area,” said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the state health department. 

“We urge Upper Peninsula residents, students and visitors to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash their hands often and stay home if they are ill. We all need to do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19 and cannot let our guard down.”

She said the state is providing support to the region through increased testing, communication resources and technical assistance to community response conversations by local health, health care, education and business sectors. 

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said officials would continue to monitor the spread of infection, but she expressed concern about the coming influenza season that will overlap with cases of COVID-19.

“Get your flu vaccine, wear a mask, and maintain six feet of physical distancing. We will get through this together,” Khaldun said in a statement. 

mburke@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.