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U.P. retail, restaurants, bars to reopen

LANSING (AP) — Restaurants, bars and other retail businesses can reopen in the Upper Peninsula and much of northern Michigan starting Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Monday — a key step for the tourism-dependent region before the Memorial Day weekend and summer season.

Social gatherings of up to 10 people will be allowed across the vast area, too.

Bars and restaurants, which have only been able to do pickup and delivery due to coronavirus restrictions, will have to limit capacity to 50%. Groups must stay 6 feet apart, and servers will have to wear face coverings. Office business can resume if work cannot be performed remotely.

The governor’s latest coronavirus stay-at-home order still keeps food and drink establishments off limits to dine-in customers in 51 counties with 93% of the state’s 10 million people. Other places of public accommodation such as movie theaters, gyms and hair salons remain closed statewide, at least through May 28.

Whitmer called the partial reopening of northern Michigan a “big step,” but urged people to not “go rushing out.” She recommended that residents thinking about visiting the Upper Peninsula or a 17-county region of the northern Lower Peninsula — home to 7% of the population and just 1% of Michigan’s 4,915 deaths related to COVID-19 — to “think long and hard.”

“The whole state is watching to make sure we get this right,” said Whitmer, a Democrat who has been criticized by Republicans in the GOP-led Legislature for not restarting the economy sooner in regions with few cases.

The governor previously opened manufacturing plants and other businesses in a state with the fourth-highest reported death toll from COVID-19. She said she was hopeful about announcing the restart of sectors “in the lower parts of our state” before the three-day holiday weekend.

She also issued an order requiring businesses or operations that are permitted to require their employees to leave home for work to develop a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan and make it available to employees and customers by June 1 or within two weeks of resuming in-person activities, whichever is later.

Workers must be trained on infection-control practices, the use of personal protective equipment, and how to report symptoms and or unsafe working conditions. There must be cleaning and sanitizing protocols for high-touch areas like credit card machines.

The state reported 24 additional deaths related to COVID-19, raising the total to 4,915. In Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan said any city resident, regardless of age or lack of symptoms, can be tested for the virus for free at the former state fairgrounds.

Whitmer’s move applies to two of the eight regions established as part of her “MI Safe Start” plan. She pointed to their new cases per million residents each day — less than five and two — compared to the statewide average of 33. The Upper Peninsula and Traverse City regions account for 1% of deaths. About 79% of deaths are from three counties in metro Detroit.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Waucedah Township, issued a statement after Whitmer announced a partial reopening of the Upper Peninsula.

“Like many residents in the Upper Peninsula, I was pleased to hear the governor announce today that she has decided to allow some restaurants, bars, retail and office locations to go back to work on Friday. While this is a welcome development and something that I have been calling for, it does not go far enough, and I worry it may be too late for some,” he said.

“Sparing lives and protecting the health and well-being of people is a noble pursuit. One life lost to this virus is one too many, but the broader effects of this shutdown have been deep and wide. Livelihoods throughout the U.P. have been irrevocably lost. This could lead to the loss of homes and the inability of people to even feed their families. Perhaps worse, I have been in touch with families who’ve lost people to suicide and those who have considered it due to despair or untreated pain.

“This isn’t working. No more picking and choosing who can and can’t be open or who is and isn’t essential. Can doctor’s offices even be open? Salons or barbers? The governor’s announcement today wasn’t clear, and that repetitive lack of clarity is both insulting and unnecessary. So beyond needing clarity about what she says, we also need her to be open with us about how and why she is arriving at her decisions. If she had even bothered to call just one U.P. legislator about these or past decisions, we could have helped make sure many more things were clear and not left to be cleaned up or fixed later.

“Every life is essential, and we have to move forward because, while this virus likely isn’t going anywhere soon, our economy and people’s livelihoods are by the day. We have to be able to trust one another to be smart, be safe and get back to living.”

Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers, who attended Whitmer’s news conference in Lansing, said “our welcome mat is out there” but also noted many major summer festivals — economic drivers for the region — have been canceled due to the pandemic. The reopening will be slow to ensure safety, he said.

“We must be mindful of this virus that is still spreading,” he said.

Under the governor’s worker and customer safeguards, restaurants and bars must close waiting areas; close self-serve food and drink options; post signs telling customers to wear masks until they get to their table; and install barriers such as sneeze guards at cash registers and other areas where maintaining 6 feet distance is difficult.

Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, said restaurateurs in the rest of the state hope to reopen, too. Their livelihood is tied to how well those in northern Michigan “execute,” he said.

Republican lawmakers, who have challenged Whitmer’s orders in court, said they had been pushing for a “commonsense” regional approach.

“This is a positive step that we’ve been requesting for over a month now, but the vast majority of Michigan is still held captive in the nation’s worst lockdown,” said House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering, whose district includes parts of the Upper and Lower peninsulas.

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