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MDHHS: Restaurants can open up to half-capacity beginning Friday

MARQUETTE — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday announced what is probably welcome news to many people: increased capacity limits in restaurants and expanded opportunities to visit residential care facilities.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services updated two of its epidemic orders to allow for increased capacity limits at various venues, larger residential and nonresidential gatherings, and expanded visitation opportunities at residential care facilities.

“Restaurants and bars can operate at 50% capacity,” Whitmer said at a media conference. “That’s up from 25%. I’m also pleased that we can now allow visitation at nursing homes, too.

“We know that this virus has taken a disproportionate toll on our seniors, and the isolation and the time apart has been taxing on everyone with loved ones and long-term care facilities.”

Changes to the Gatherings and Mask Order will go into effect Friday and remain in effect through April 19.

Capacity changes include:

≤ Restaurants and bars are allowed to be at 50% capacity up to 100 people. Tables must be 6 feet apart with no more than six people per table. There is now an 11 p.m. curfew.

≤ Indoor non-residential gatherings where people interact across households are permitted up to 25 people, allowing public meetings and other small indoor gatherings to resume.

≤ Outdoor non-residential gatherings where people interact across households are permitted up to 300, allowing larger outdoor events to resume.

≤ Indoor entertainment venues are allowed to be at 50% capacity, up to 300 people.

≤ Exercise facilities are allowed to be at 30% capacity with restrictions on distancing and mask requirements.

≤ Retail is allowed to be at 50% capacity.

≤ Casinos are allowed to be at 30% capacity.

≤ Indoor stadiums and arenas are allowed to have 375 people if seating capacity is under 10,000, and 750 if seating capacity is over 10,000.

≤ Outdoor entertainment and recreational facilities may host up to 1,000 patrons.

Indoor residential gatherings are now limited to 15 people from three households, while outdoor residential gatherings can include up to 50 people.

The epidemic order continues to temporarily pause other venues and activities where participants have close physical contacts and are not consistently masked, such as water parks.

“All of these re-engagements will enable Michiganders to enjoy more of life’s simplest pleasures that have been disrupted over the past year — going out for a meal with your family, date night to go see the new and cheesy rom-com (movie), a coffee with your grandma,” Whitmer said. “These are the things that make our lives full, and I know how eager we all are to get back to enjoying our days with loved ones.”

The Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance said in a statement that it’s encouraged to see COVID-19 restrictions on businesses loosening. The alliance represents 16 chambers and economic development organizations, including the Marquette-based Lake Superior Community Partnership, and over 7,000 member businesses from across northern Michigan.

The organization commended Whitmer for listening to businesses, including those in the hospitality industry.

“Alliance member organizations are certainly feeling encouraged by today’s announcement,” said Stacie Bytwork, alliance chairwoman and president and CEO of the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce. “The easing of restrictions, including increasing capacity for restaurants and bars, is a start down the path of economic recovery for our regional business community.”

More than 2 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered and a third vaccine will soon arrive in Michigan, said Elizabeth Hertel, MDHHS director.

She said data is closely monitored, and based on current trends, the state is taking “another step toward normalcy.” She also urged Michiganders to continue wearing a mask, wash their hands and avoid crowds.

MDHHS had been closely monitoring three metrics for stabilization or declines over the past several weeks. In recent days, hospital capacity dedicated to COVID-19 is now at 3.9% after having peaked at 19.6% on Dec. 4.

After declining for six weeks, overall case rates are plateauing at 91.2 cases per million, which is similar to what was seen the beginning of October, the MDHHS said. Additionally, the positivity rate is now at 3.7%, having increased slightly from last week’s 3.5%. This metric is similar to where the state was at the beginning of October.

The MDHHS said that with all residents at skilled nursing homes having been offered their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and a vast majority having had their second dose, the Residential Care Facilities Order goes into effect immediately.

The order encourages communal dining and group activities for residents and allows indoor and outdoor visitation in all counties regardless of county risk level. Visitation is allowed as long as the facility has not had a new COVID-19 case in the last 14 days and all indoor visitors ages 13 and older are subject to rapid antigen testing.

Adult foster care homes licensed for 12 or fewer residents, hospice facilities, substance use disorder residential facilities and assisted-living facilities are encouraged to implement visitor and staff testing protocols.

Visitors will be required to wear face masks or other personal protective equipment when required by the facility at all times. Visitors will generally need to maintain 6 feet of distance from residents.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, MDHHS chief medical executive, noted that improvements in case numbers, test positivity and vaccinations mean the state can move forward with reopening incrementally.

Food, agricultural workers encouraged to get vaccines

Michigan’s food processing and agricultural workers are encouraged to register to receive a COVID-19 vaccination appointment as eligibility expands to Michiganders working in the food and agriculture sector.

“Throughout the pandemic, Michigan’s food and agriculture workers have been the backbone of our food supply chain and our rural economy,” said Gary McDowell, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, in a statement. “I am pleased Michigan food and agricultural workers are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine because getting the vaccine is essential for their health and safety, the safety of their communities, and the stability of our food supply chain in Michigan.”

Those frontline essential workers who are eligible to receive the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday include food processing workers, such as employees at meat processing and meat packing facilities, workers who process fruit and vegetables, dairy processing, animal feed manufacturing, food and animal feed ingredient manufacturing, beverage production, and the production of food packaging.

Eligibility also includes farm workers, including migrant and seasonal workers, involved in raising, cultivating, harvesting, packing, storing and distributing agricultural commodities, and those that work in close proximity to others.

“We want to make sure the dedicated Michiganders employed in our state’s food production facilities around the state have the tools and information they need to receive the vaccine,” said Mike Johnston, vice president of government affairs of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, in a statement. “We will work with these facilities in their efforts to educate employees about the vaccine and eradicate the spread of the virus.”

Eligible food and agricultural workers can register in the following ways:

≤ Check the website of your local health department or hospital for sign-ups or registration forms;

≤ Check the appropriate essential food/agricultural worker option;

≤ Call the COVID-19 Hotline at 888-535-6136 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or call 2-1-1. Multiple languages are available;

≤ Check additional vaccination sites. Examples are local pharmacies such as Meijer, Rite Aid and Cardinal Health.

“The availability of a COVID-19 vaccine for many food and agricultural employees in Michigan is a very positive step in the process to vaccinate Michiganders, and we encourage everyone in the agriculture sector to register for the vaccine so they can receive it as soon as possible,” said Chuck Lippstreu, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association and Protect Michigan Commission Rural Workgroup chair, in a statement.

Race, ethnicity data reporting urged

The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting health challenges to all populations across the country, with Black, indigenous and people of color carrying a heavy burden. However, the lack of reporting on race and ethnicity in COVID-19 public health surveillance data is not telling the whole story for American Indian and Alaskan Native communities, said the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan, Inc.

A COVID-19 Data Report Card, published by the Urban Indian Health Institute, addresses the effectiveness in collecting and reporting racial data in the United States. The UIHI, one of 12 tribal epidemiology centers in the U.S., gave each state a grade based on the quality of collection and reporting of AI/AN COVID-19 racial data. Michigan was given a C-minus.

The report indicated that this lack of data directly impacts the ability of local, state, federal and tribal public health authorities to address the COVID-19 virus and limits policy makers’ ability to make data-driven decisions for equitable policy and resource allocation.

To address the absence or gap in data, the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan has launched a media campaign on its social media platforms, encouraging Michigan’s American Indians and Alaskan Natives to “Claim Your Race” and “Represent Your Tribe” on all health forms rather than marking “other,” something else or nothing when asked for race information.

Race data can help determine native communities’ needs for schools, housing, health care facilities and roads. People do not need to be enrolled in a federally recognized tribe to identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.

To read the article from the Urban Indian Health Institute, visit https://www.uihi.org/projects/data-genocide-of-american-indians-and-alaska-natives-in-covid-19-data/.

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