An announcement Thursday was more than a year in the making and one many Michiganders had been waiting to hear.

Thursday Gov. Gretchen Whitmer accelerated the end of all COVID-19 epidemic orders on gatherings and masking as COVID-19 cases continue to plummet following increased vaccinations. Beginning Tuesday, capacity in both indoor and outdoor settings will increase to 100% and the state will no longer require residents to wear a face mask.

Nearly 5 million Michiganders ages 16 and older have received their first vaccine dose, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. According to data from the Michigan Care Improvement Registry, half of Michigan residents have completed their vaccination and more than 60% have gotten their first shots.

The current restrictions had been planned to end on July 1.

Infection rates have plummeted in recent weeks to levels not recorded since June 2020, long before the vaccines were introduced, according to reports from Bridge Michigan and Sergio Martínez-Beltrán, Mike Wilkinson and Paula Gardner. There have been just 1,516 new COVID-19 cases in the past seven days, down a staggering 87% from a month ago when 11,749 cases were reported, Bridge Michigan said.

Far fewer people have been testing positive as well, with the state reporting as little as 1% of tests coming back positive — the lowest levels since the pandemic began in March 2020. Hospitalizations and deaths also have fallen precipitously, the number of vaccinations has increased and the weather has warmed.

Meanwhile, an estimated 60.6% of all residents 16 and older have now gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, according to Bridge Michigan's report.

Whitmer had hinted for days that she would lift the restrictions earlier than scheduled.

Cast Iron Kitchen owner Larry Bunge said Whitmer's announcement was great news. With his restaurant in Manton and a soon-to-be-opened iteration of the same restaurant in Cadillac, the timing of the end of restrictions is just about perfect.

"I feel good about it. There is still room for some caution, but I feel it will be a good thing for everyone involved — customers and businesses," he said.

With restrictions starting to loosen during the past few months, Bunge said things have slowly improved. While staffing has been an ongoing struggle for businesses like Bunge's, he said even that appears to be leveling off. His hope is that continues to improve because he still needs more staffing.

For Bunge, Whitmer's announcement on Thursday is giving him and many others the sense of normalcy that has been missing for more than a year.

"A sense of normal is what everyone is looking for now," he said. "It has been the hardest year that I can remember. I'm finally seeing faces and they are all happy and comfortable. They are not so nervous or edgy. We are getting back to life."

The return to normal marks a significant turning point in the pandemic, which has been blamed for nearly 20,000 deaths in Michigan. More than 893,000 people contracted the disease during the same period.

Fears over infections and restrictions enacted by the state triggered huge job losses, especially in the hospitality sector that was shuttered twice in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease, according to Bridge Michigan reporting.

According to the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, 3,000 restaurants in the state have permanently closed and 200,000 employees have been laid off due to the pandemic. Additionally, over half of the hotels in Michigan remain at risk of foreclosure.

Justin Winslow, the CEO of the association, said Michigan’s restaurants and hotels are looking forward to a busy summer after the “burden‘ of restrictions.

“It’s critical for them,‘ he said.

But Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, questioned why businesses must continue to wait days for the lifting of restrictions.

“If it is a good idea,‘ Studley said, adding he expects chamber members to ask, “why didn’t her decision take effect (Friday)?"

He called the decision a “positive step forward,‘ but that “for weeks and months now Gov. Whitmer has been slow-walking Michigan’s recovery.‘

“Michigan is one of the last states in the country to have these very heavy, very severe restrictions.‘

In addition to the Gatherings and Mask Order, additional orders will be rescinded on June 22. These include:

• Temporary restrictions for entry into congregate care and juvenile justice facilities

• Mandatory testing for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' juvenile justice facility staff

• Mandatory testing for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services hospitals and centers staff

• Exceptions to temporary restrictions on entry into congregate care and juvenile justice facilities

• Exceptions to temporary restrictions on entry into certain facilities

• Safe housing for housing-unstable individuals

• Handling of bodily remains

• Safe housing for Michigan homeless​

Additionally, some orders will remain in effect to protect vulnerable populations in corrections, long-term care and agriculture. Public health measures will continue for reporting requirements and COVID testing to make sure areas where community spread is high are identified, kids are safe in school and free COVID-19 tests are available. Guidance for keeping children and staff safe in schools will be released next week.

MDHHS will continue to provide recommendations to keep Michiganders safe and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in high-risk settings and places where vulnerable populations or populations with large numbers of individuals are not yet fully vaccinated. 

Cadillac News