By Annah Johnson
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer offered two press conferences to announce a new order that will reopen indoor dining and plans to support families facing food insecurity. Reflecting on the historic inauguration and the promise of unity with the new administration, Whitmer urged that it is time to join forces and defeat our common enemy that is the virus that has taken 14,000 lives across the state.
President Joe Biden has passed a Defense Production Act, which has been the action Whitmer was calling on the federal government to do since vaccines became available. This is a promising development on a federal level that will hopefully speed up the process of vaccine distribution.
Whitmer announced that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services pause placed in November has worked. On Nov. 15, Michigan was averaging 743 COVID-19 cases per million people, there has been a reduction of over 70% as the number has dropped to 225 as of this past week.
“The science is settled, wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and avoiding indoor gatherings where the virus easily spreads from person to person, these things work,” Whitmer said. “Now, while we must remain vigilant and cautious, we can lift some protocols that were previously in place.”
MDHHS is now issuing an epidemic order to resume indoor dining on Feb 1. Whitmer attributed this to the citizens that did their part by following health protocols to make this reopening possible. Whitmer announced that she has signed a bipartisan relief bill to help small business owners and restaurant workers get back on their feet. One aspect of this bill allows most entertainment, recreational venues and restaurants that depend on indoor dining to postpone their monthly sales, use and withholding tax for Dec. 20, 2020 and Jan. 20, 2021.
Michigan Economic Development Corporation is urging a buy local campaign continuing through March to ask citizens to aid in the support of their local businesses. Whitmer has requested that the legislature approves a $10 million grant to reimburse restaurants that choose to go through a program to update their ventilation systems.
Whitmer urged the Michigan Legislature to pass the Michigan COVID Recovery program introduced by her team on Tuesday. This program is designed to grow Michigan’s economy, economic recovery, and offer $90 million in federal funding to ramp up distribution to 50,000 shots per day. It aims to provide crucial support to families and small businesses through programs like the Michigan Main Street Initiative to secure grants for restaurants and other place-based businesses.
“So, once again, I extend my hand to the Legislature, to say ‘Let’s get this done for the people we serve,’” Whitmer said.
A final urge to the legislature to permanently extend unemployment benefits from 20 to 26 weeks to provide workers with more financial security. With 1.2 million Michiganders eligible for food assistance, this would also provide an additional payment to raise their monthly amount by 15% for the next six months. Numerous actions have been taken to provide comprehensive food assistance to various populations across the state. Applications have been made available for families to apply for assistance.
“Just because we are lifting some protocols on Feb. 1, doesn’t mean it is time to let our guard down,” Whitmer said, reminding citizens to stay vigilant and plan to get vaccinated.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Chief Medical Executive and Chief Deputy Director for Health for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services explained that the most recent data shows 225 cases per million, which has been on the decline for the past 11 days. The test positivity rate is at 6.8% and has been declining for 12 days. Just under 10% of inpatient beds are being used for COVID-19 patients, which has been steadily declining for seven weeks.
The new order beginning on Feb. 1 states that indoor dining will be allowed to resume, including concessions at entertainment venues and personal services. Large venues will also be allowed to have greater capacity limits. Restaurant capacity limits will be enforced at 25%, and the new order will also implement a curfew of 10 p.m.
“These are incremental steps we can take because of the success we have seen with our order,” Khaldun said.
She encouraged people to still support their local restaurants by ordering takeout and purchasing gift cards but stressed that dining indoors is still one of the riskiest things you can do in the terms of spreading COVID-19.
A new voluntary certification program for restaurants is available from the state that will notify patrons that they have taken extra measures to update ventilation and table spacing to make the dining experience safer.
Khaldun announced that the B117 strain of coronavirus has officially been detected in Michigan. This new variant is concerning, as every person that is infected is more likely to spread it to more people than if they had the original strain.
“The good news is, the tests we currently have for COVID-19 do identify this new variant and current data tells us that the vaccines we have also worked against this new variant,” Khaldun said.
Owner and Head Brewer Kim Collins of Guardian Brewing in Saugatuck shared a statement at the press conference. Collins announced that Guardian and its staff are excited to open as all of their sales are dependent on dining in the restaurant. Collins explained that her establishment has been open seven days a week throughout the entire pandemic, and is proudly known for strictly enforcing safety protocols – and turning away patrons who are not compliant.
“At the end of the day it’s really the health of our staff and our community that matters most,” Collins said.
During a press conference on Jan. 25, Whitmer announced that she has announced appointments to the Michigan Bipartisan Protect Michigan Commission to educate citizens on the available vaccines’ efficacy and safety. This commission is composed of Khaldun, Lieutenant Governor Garland Gilcrest, Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin and many diverse industry leaders across the state. The hope of this commission in collaboration with the Michigan COVID Recovery Plan is to ensure that every Michigander who wants a vaccine is able to get one.
“I’m confident that members of this commission will rise to the occasion and help Michigan end the COVID-19 pandemic once and for all,” Whitmer said.
Congress appropriated additional pandemic response funding of $90 million to ramp up vaccine distribution. Whitmer’s plans will use this funding to ensure support for vaccine distribution costs, local health departments and supplies.
“I just ask for patience, as our frontline workers are working 24/7 to get the shots that we do have in arms,” Whitmer said.
Khaldun reported that all three metrics continue to trend downward, and have shown a decrease even since the Jan. 22 press conference. She expressed concern over the confirmed cases of the B117 strain and reminded citizens of proper mask-wearing procedures, as many continue to wear them improperly.
“We want to continue to reopen our economy and get back to a sense of normalcy,” Khaldun said. “This means that we all have to think a bit differently and more aggressively about preventing the spread.”
Newly appointed Director of the Department of Health and Human Services Elizabeth Hertel has replaced Robert Gordon. When Hertel spoke at Monday’s press conference, she thanked Gordon for his service, and Whitmer extended her thanks as well but did not offer any information as to the reason he resigned.
“We are extremely appreciative of the recently announced changes from President Biden that will further strengthen the resources available to help families,” Hertel said. “This includes the extension of the 15% additional food assistance benefits that Michigan families will begin receiving this month, and increasing the amount of our pandemic EBT benefits.”
Bill Knight, Director of the Michigan Food Bank Counsel, explained the tremendous difficulties surrounding food insecurity in the state.
“The toxic stress of being food insecure does not confine itself to the beginning and the end of a pandemic,” Knight said. “But it does make living inside the worst public health crisis in a century far more difficult.”
Collaboration with organizations and social service programs is essential to solving the hunger problems in Michigan. Support from the Biden administration will help vulnerable families and remove pressure from charitable networks in the state. The hunger crisis is something that can touch every citizen and can unite the community in combating it.
“Hunger isn’t partisan, it isn’t even bipartisan. It is nonpartisan,” Knight said.
A senior Michigander, Gracie Harris spoke to her gratitude for the assistance programs that sustained her through the pandemic.
“I was concerned how I was going to keep food on my table,” Harris said. “Not having access to a food bank, this has allowed me to make it through the month. Our governor is meeting the needs of the seniors like myself.”