A statewide epidemic order from the Department of Health and Human Services governing the use of masks and public gatherings was extended on Friday through late May, with the mask mandate being expanded to include children ages 2 to 4 who were previously exempt.
Unlike orders during previous waves of the coronavirus, no temporary closures of bars, restaurants or other public places were enacted in the new order. This drew a collective sigh of relief from hospitality industry groups in a flurry of statements, while medical groups said expanding the mask mandate was a prudent decision.
In a release, the department explained that the mask mandate expansion to young children is due to an increase in cases of COVID-19 among young people (the number of children with confirmed or suspected cases reached 54. The mask mandate expansion, effective April 26, is based on recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The extension of the rest of the order is effective April 19.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer in recent weeks has opted not to have DHHS reimpose business closures as in previous waves during the pandemic. This is despite a spike in COVID-19 cases that has matched and exceeded the peak numbers of cases and hospitalizations seen in earlier spikes in infection and is the worst in the nation (see separate story).
“Michigan continues to implement smart health policies and mitigation measures to fight the spread of COVID-19,” DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a statement. “This includes the requirement to wear a mask while in public and at gatherings, limits on indoor residential social gatherings larger than 15 people with no more than three households, and expanded testing requirements for youth sports.”
DHHS said in a release that about 29.5 percent of residents 16 years old and older have been fully vaccinated and 44 percent have been administered a first dose of two-dose vaccines.
The department said its three closely tracked metrics include positivity rates, statewide case rates and hospital capacity.
Currently, the department said, the positivity rate in the state is at 17.1 percent, still above the December 2020 peak of 14.4 percent during the last wave of COVID-19 in the state.
Statewide case rates have risen to 613.9 per million, based on the department’s most recent data.
As for hospital capacity, total statewide inpatient beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients were at 18.8 percent. This was down from 19.6 percent on December 4, 2020, at the peak of the previous spike in cases.
The department said the metrics are still on the rise, but the rise is beginning to slow and potentially leveling off.
“I continue to be incredibly concerned about our state’s COVID-19 data,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said in a statement. “We are still very much fighting this pandemic and seeing concerning trends in new cases and hospitalizations. Just because something is open and legal does not mean you should be doing it.”
Ms. Khaldun said residents should help to slow the virus’s spread by avoiding crowds and indoor gatherings, getting vaccinated and practicing good hygiene.
Dr. Matthew Hornik, Michigan Chapter president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a statement called the expanded mask mandate a good choice by the administration.
“We know that wearing a mask significantly reduces the spread of infection and should be part of the comprehensive strategy to reduce COVID-19-including for children age 2 and up,” Mr. Hornik said. “Use of masks does not restrict oxygen in the lungs even in children, it is recommended to wear a mask with layers to filer droplets effectively.”
Hospitality industry groups quickly thanked the administration in statements for not renewing the previous temporarily business closures for in-person dining at bars and restaurants.
Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, said business owners have learned much during the pandemic to operate safely and business owners need to continue those efforts.
“While the order maintains limits on occupancy in restaurants, banquets and event centers, it very importantly opts not to close them a third time as has been suggested by some,” Mr. Winslow said. “While we maintain that all available data has consistently demonstrated that restaurants have provided a comparatively safe environment for both patrons and employees, we also acknowledge that Michigan is enduring a challenging third wave of COVID-19 with troubling rates of community spread.”
Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, had similar comments to that of Mr. Winslow.
“We’ve always maintained that the number one priority for most business owners is operating safely during this pandemic and we encourage all establishments to continue to follow the rules,” Mr. Ellis said. “A statewide closure of bars and restaurants just doesn’t make sense. New cases, outbreaks and hospitalizations vary greatly depending on where you are in the state.”
Stacie Bytwork, chair of the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance, agreed with the other hospitality groups.
“We all want things to get back to normal as quickly as possible, but to do that it’s going to take us all working together,” Ms. Bytwork said. “We can all do our part to stay safe and keep businesses open. Today the Alliance is relieved the order does not further restrict capacity limits on our businesses, and we will continue to educate our community on the importance of COVID-19 mitigation efforts.”
Not everyone was impressed with the move, with some lawmakers questioning having young children being forced to mask up in public.
“What science and data says we can stop the pandemic by forcing 2-year-olds to wear masks at daycare? Don’t think scientific data or political data agree with this decision. We live in incredibly stupid times!” Sen. Aric Nesbitt said on Twitter in response to the announcement.
The Twitter account for the Michigan Senate Republicans also took a swipe at the mask mandate expansion, making a comparison to past noncompliant business owner arrests and fines.
“Will the attorney general be conducting raids to arrest noncompliant toddlers like she has restaurant owners?” the Senate GOP said.
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