Whitmer reopens auto dealerships, retail businesses by appointment, authorizes nonessential medical, dental and veterinary procedures

At Don’s Auto Clinic and Highpoint Auto and Truck Center, in Cadillac, president Tod Winkle said they’re excited about being able to see people by appointment at the office once again after weeks of conducting sales remotely.

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday further relaxed stay-at-home restrictions, saying a ban on nonessential health procedures would be lifted next week and that groups of up to 10 people can gather immediately ahead of the Memorial Day weekend.

Retailers can reopen by appointment only, starting Tuesday, as long as there are no more than 10 customers inside at a time. People also can make an appointment to visit an auto dealer showroom. Social distancing requirements remain in place.

The stay-home order, which remains in effect through May 28, will likely be extended, she said.

"This will not look like business as usual, although it will start to look at little more normal," Whitmer said during a news conference.

At Don’s Auto Clinic and Highpoint Auto and Truck Center, in Cadillac, president Tod Winkle said they’re excited about being able to see people by appointment at the office once again after weeks of conducting sales remotely.

Winkle said their sales are up right now despite the fact that people couldn’t actually come into the dealership, thanks largely to technology.

Nowadays, Winkle said the first contact with customers frequently takes place over the phone, through email, or through a virtual showing, so the situation wasn’t that much different than it normally is, in that regard.

Once contact is made, Winkle said they’ve been meeting up with customers at agreed-to locations to show them the vehicles they’re interested in.

Being able to once again see people at the office will relieve some of the running around they’ve had to do and also enable them to offer customers simple amenities such as use of the bathroom.

Winkle said they experienced a surge in sales around the time the state allowed dealerships to sell vehicles remotely, so he doesn’t think the change on Tuesday will make a huge difference in their customer volumes.

Ray Bradford, general manager of Severn Motors, in Cadillac, said they’ve been seeing customers by appointment for some time already.

“The good news is, now we can do it legally,‘ Bradford said. “And we’re not the only ones that have been doing it. I figure, what’s the difference between my parking lot and the parking lot at Meijer?‘

Bradford said they sold a lot of automobiles around the time the federal government starting issuing stimulus checks to the public.

One of the wrinkles that he’s experienced in selling automobiles in the current environment is that the Secretary of State isn’t open for customers to get license plates and other paperwork for their new vehicles.

“They’re all driving around with illegal plates,‘ Bradford said. “The Secretary of State will probably get hit pretty hard once they open.‘

Restaurants will remain closed to dine-in customers, except in northern Michigan. The closure of places of public accommodation such as casinos, gyms and hair salons remains in effect statewide.

"We have taken a lot of steps in the past few weeks," the governor said, noting the previous reopening of industries statewide, such as manufacturing and construction, and the pending partial reopening Friday of bars, restaurants and retail stores in northern Michigan, where cases and deaths have been low. "We've got to take a pause and see what it means in terms of what happens with COVID-19 numbers and the potential spread."

The state has reported 5,060 confirmed deaths due to coronavirus complications, fourth-most in the U.S.

Nonessential surgeries and other services have been banned for two months as part of virus controls, and hospitals in the Detroit area have had to permanently or temporarily lay off employees while focusing on COVID-19 patients. Hospitals elsewhere in Michigan have made cuts, too, due to the delay in nonessential procedures. Many doctors have been conducting appointments via telemedicine, and dentists have closed their practices except for emergencies.

The ban on nonessential procedures will lift May 29, Whitmer said.

"The governor specifically called, for example, joint replacements 'non-essential,'" said Dr. Joe Santangelo, interim chief quality and safety officer, Munson Healthcare. 

But procedures that protect the life and health of patients have been ongoing throughout the pandemic.

With the lifting of the ban, non-essential and even cosmetic surgeries can resume.

Though the word "triage" is commonly understood in terms of emergencies, health care providers will continue to use a triaging approach to determine which kinds of procedures happen soonest and which can wait a little longer. Some patients may need to be referred back to their primary care provider to see whether they're in good shape for surgery.

Preparing to fully re-open the operating room and other services is a complicated process, Dr. Santangelo noted.

Munson patients awaiting procedures can expect to start getting scheduling calls next week.

Dr. Robert Kendall at Cadillac ENT and Facial Plastic Surgery said social distancing measures would continue at the practice, with limited seating in the waiting area and other protective measures.

Dr. Jennifer White of Brite White Dental in Manton said she is planning on opening on June 1. She said she is ready to open and has done her homework to prepare herself and her office to ensure all patients and team members stay safe.

In her estimation, the biggest challenge moving forward will be the amount of treatment that will need to be done because of the two months shut down.

"Everything will be slower and take a little bit more time. Thankfully, I have a lot of nice, patient patients," she said.

She also said because he has incorporated equipment that reduces risk such as aerosol reducing tools and medical-grade clean air filtration in her office. Dentists and the dental profession have always been the standard for using personal protection equipment and White said they will continue to. 

Dr. Bobby Mukkamala, president of the Michigan State Medical Society, said physicians "would like to get back to taking care of our patients and catching up on a lot of work that has been put on hold. ... We are ready to see you."

A trade group said stores that previously were not deemed essential are ready to reopen after weeks of preparations, but its leader expressed disappointment that they cannot do so until the day after Memorial Day.

"Most retailers in Michigan are unnecessarily missing out on important holiday weekend sales," said Bill Hallan, president and CEO of the Michigan Retailers Association. "We look forward to working with the governor to accelerate the opening process."