Gov. Whitmer announces tentative return of indoor dining on Feb. 1, plus other restrictions lifted

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(WWJ) It's the announcement that struggling bars and restaurants have been waiting for.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says the state health department's ban on indoor dining will be lifted, effective February 1, 2021 — "if (COVID-19) numbers continue to head in the right direction." That is, with reduced capacities and other safety measures in place.

In the meantime, beginning Jan. 16, indoor exercise classes and indoor non-contact sports — including in K-12 schools — may resume.

“The efforts we have made together to protect our families, frontline workers and small business owners are working. While there has been a slight uptick in our percent positivity rate, our cases per million have plateaued and more hospital beds are becoming available. Today, we are confident that MDHHS can lift some of the protocols that were previously in place,” said Whitmer. “Michigan is once again standing out as a nationwide leader in fighting this virus, and we must continue working to keep it that way. One of the most important things Michiganders can do is to make a plan to get the safe and effective vaccine when it’s available to you. And as always, mask up and maintain six feet of social distancing. We will end this pandemic together.”

Also announced: Whitmer says a grant program will "put money in the pockets" restaurant, gym, entertainment and other hospitality workers who have been effected by the pandemic, with funds coming from previous-announced state stimulus funds.

"These Michiganders have made great sacrifices, and continue to make great sacrifices as we fight COVID-19," the governor said, at a Wednesday news briefing. "So this grant program will help offset some of the financial loss that they've incurred, through furlough, layoff, or job loss, or a reduction of hours because of the virus."

One-time employee assistance grants of up to $1,600 are available for those who qualify, There is 10-day window to apply, from Jan. 15 to Jan 25, and payments will be issued in March.

To apply, go to www.mrlaef.org/money.

Michigan's restaurant industry, along with its thousands of workers, has suffered under the move to carryout and delivery only, with some defying the order and facing fines and other penalties. Since September, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission has suspended liquor licenses of a total of 34 businesses throughout the state for violations of the Executive and Emergency Orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The stricter orders enacted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, what officials called a "Pause to Save Lives," in mid-November was set to expire on Dec. 20. However, as Whitmer said the numbers showed the ban was working to slow the spread of the virus, it was extended through the holidays and beyond — much to the dismay of business owners, employees, and would-be patrons who tired of being cooped up in their homes. In the meantime, restaurants in Michigan have gotten creative — setting up heated outdoor tents, or igloos that offer a secluded dining away from other parties.

While daily coronavirus case counts have declined in Michigan in recent weeks. health officials say community spread continues in the state.

At last official count on Tuesday, MDHHS reported 1,994 new confirmed cases and 100 more deaths. Half of those deaths were just determined from a review of records. Michigan now has had more than 525,000 cases of the virus and 13,501 deaths since mid-March. A total of 415,079 people infected have recovered.

“We are reopening cautiously because caution is working to save lives. The new order allows group exercise and non-contact sports, always with masks and social distancing, because in the winter it’s not as easy to get out and exercise and physical activity is important for physical and mental health,” said MDHHS Director Robert Gordon. “We are glad that we made it through the holidays without a big increase in numbers, but there are also worrying signs in the new numbers. We need to remain focused and continue to see declines in hospitalizations and to bring case rates and percent positivity down by doing what we know works.”

Previously, MDHHS had identified stabilization or declines in three metrics as critical for relaxing protocols. Although Michigan saw improvements across all three following the “pause," some numbers have plateaued or begun to increase in recent days, according to MDHHS.

Here's a look at the numbers the state is looking at:

- Hospital capacity dedicated to COVID-19 patients has been in 13-day decline, with current capacity is at 12% for beds with COVID-19 patients. Peaked at 19.6% on Tuesday, Dec. 4.
- Overall case rates:  increasing, currently at 266 cases per million. Peaked at 740 cases per million on Saturday, Nov. 14 and declined to a low of 239 on Friday, Dec. 25
- Positivity rate: plateauing; currently at 9.1% after reaching a low of 8.1% on Monday, Dec. 28 and increasing up to 10% since then.

“We continue to make progress in our fight against this virus, and expanding vaccination to healthcare workers, long-term care residents and staff, some essential frontline workers and those age 65 and older is bringing us closer to ending the pandemic,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at MDHHS. “It is important that everyone continues to do their part by avoiding gatherings, wearing masks properly and social distancing. This remains just as important, even as the safe and effective vaccine is being administered, to protect those who are not yet able to be vaccinated.”

Get the latest information on COVID-19 in Michigan at michigan.gov/coronavirus.