State officials tighten gathering limits as coronavirus cases surge

LANSING, Mich. (AP/WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration on Thursday tightened restrictions on indoor gatherings and shifted the Traverse City region backward in Michigan’s reopening plan, saying coronavirus hospitalizations have doubled in three weeks and the statewide death rate has risen for five straight weeks.

The state Department of Health and Human Services revised and extended mask and other rules.

Effective immediately, indoor venues without fixed seating must limit gatherings such as weddings, parties and banquets to no more than 50 people — down from a maximum of 500. Restaurants, bars and other venues must seat no more than six people at a table. All dine-in establishments must keep customers’ names and phone numbers for contact-tracing purposes, starting Monday.

The state said indoor settings are as much as 20 times more likely to drive COVID-19 outbreaks than outdoor settings. It also recommended that people keep their voices down at social events, warning that shouting or cheering can increase the virus in the air by up to 30 times.

“Avoid the indoor get-togethers where we have seen COVID explode,” said Robert Gordon, director of the health department.

The state reminded people the epidemic orders are enforceable by law, including a $1,000 civil fine or a six-month misdemeanor. The state directed people with complaints about violations to its website to find out where to report them.

The new guidelines requiring dine-in establishments to collect customer information for contact tracing purposes doesn’t take effect until Monday, giving restaurant and bar owners a few days to figure out how they’ll go about it.

The Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, a trade organization that advocates for bars, immediately objected to the order, saying in a statement that bars were already doing a good job keeping outbreaks to a minimum and that the new rules put too much on workers’ shoulders:

“Another day, another bar and restaurant regulation that looks good on paper. Why do they continue to pick on bars and restaurants when their own data continues to show that we are not a problem industry. It would be more productive to focus on identifying and solving the real problems.

MLBA Executive Director Scott Ellis

MLBA expressed concerns about the backlash staff members may face when enforcing the new rules.  

“We are just caught in the middle,” MLBA Executive Director Scott Ellis said. “We’re just doing our job and we just want to be able to stay open in an industry that’s barely surviving right now.” 

The new rules have some restaurant owners feeling a bit of déjà vu.

“I think back to the troubles we had with enforcing masks,” Co-owner of The Mitten Brewing Company Chris Andrus said. “I think they’ll be an adjustment period, but hopefully, everyone realizes this is the way it is and gets used to it.” 

Ellis expects to face even more pushback when it comes to asking patrons for personal information.

“People are very concerned about their personal data, regardless of how much it is,” Ellis said.

Restaurant owners like Andrus said they’ll abide by the new regulations but won’t tolerate patrons that put up a fight to their staff.

“Yelling at a young staff member about a restriction you don’t like doesn’t make you a patriot, it doesn’t make you a constitutional scholar, it makes you a bully and I’d rather not have you here at all,” Andrus said.

COUNTY-BY-COUNTY DATA

Michigan on Thursday announced another 3,675 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 41 more related deaths. That data came with two asterisks:

First, that the case total included more than one day’s worth of data because of network connectivity issues. Usually, the state cuts off data at 10 a.m.; that was not the case Thursday. As a result, some cases that would have originally been included in Friday’s data were listed in Thursday’s data. The state did not specify precisely how many cases that was.

Second, 22 of the 41 deaths were discovered during a review of death certificates to find any that had not already been reported to the state.

In all, Michigan has now had 171,220 confirmed cases since the virus was first detected in the state in March and recorded 7,298 related deaths.

Asked how many of the cases were symptomatic and how many were asymptomatic, Michigan’s chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said that local health department do case investigations to they have that information, but she did not.

In Kent County, one more death was recorded for a total of 183. An additional 316 cases have been confirmed for a total of 14,164 since the start of the outbreak.

Other West and Southwest Michigan counties, where case surges are among the worst in the state, also saw additional deaths:

  • Kalamazoo County: Three more deaths for a total of 106; 4,112 total cases since the start of the outbreak.
  • Muskegon County: Two more deaths for a total of 84; 2,268 total cases.
  • Ottawa County: Two more deaths for a total of 73; 5,165 total cases.
  • St. Joseph County: Two more deaths for total of 21; 1,134 total cases.
  • Van Buren County: One more death for total of 18; 1,058 total cases.

In Calhoun County, the number of deaths was revised down by two to 67. This has not been unusual as cases are double-checked and sometimes shifted between jurisdictions. It has had a total of 2,725 confirmed cases since March.

In Wayne County, originally the state’s hot spot but now doing better, there were two more deaths for a total of 2,884 and 319 more cases for a total of 37,738. Oakland County has had 21,031 confirmed cases (288 more than reported Wednesday) and 1,188 deaths (two more). Macomb County has had 18,117 confirmed cases (572 more) and 1,044 deaths (five more).

Thursday’s data dump from MDHHS also included two days’ worth of testing information. On Tuesday (data that was not released Wednesday), labs in Michigan tested 54,009 samples for the virus and 3,558 came back positive for a rate of 6.59%. On Wednesday, 41,434 samples were tested and 4,424 were positive, a rate of 8.6%.

THE STATE OF THE OUTBREAK

During a Thursday afternoon virtual press conference on the new rules, Khaldun said cases are surging in Michigan. The seven-day average of new cases per million people per day is significantly higher during Michigan’s last peak in April and Khaldun said the number of outbreaks is growing. The average of daily positive test rates has been climbing for a month and is now above 6%. That’s double the 3% threshold that public health officials say shows community spread is controlled.

Statewide, more than 1,500 hospital inpatients are suspected or have been confirmed to have COVID-19. Khaldun said that except for the in the Traverse City region, between 5% and 10% of hospital beds are being used for COVID-19 patients.

The number of deaths per day is higher than it has been since early June, with the seven-day average now above 20. The rate is still far below where it was in April, when it neared 160.

“We are at a critical time in this pandemic,” Khaldun said. “Overall, the trends we are seeing are incredibly concerning. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all increasing and unless we all change our behaviors now, that will continue.”

She urged everyone to follow the safety practices that health officials have been touting for months: wash their hands frequently, practice 6-foot social distancing, avoid crowds and wear masks in public.

“The only way to beat COVID is to act on what we have learned already. … The heart of our effort to beat COVID will be in the hearts and minds of individual Michiganders, of every race and politics, choosing to protect human life and to act on the science,” Director Gordon added at the briefing. “We have done it before here and we know we can do it again.”

 

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