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Classes, indoor dining halted in latest anti-COVID measure

Michigan Office of the Governor via AP In this photo provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, Mich., Sunday.

HOUGHTON — To tamp down a new wave of COVID-19 infections throughout the state, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Sunday announced the temporary suspension of in-person classes for high schools and colleges, indoor service for bars and restaurants and other restrictions on indoor entertainment venues and gatherings.

The three-week restrictions begin Wednesday and end Dec. 8.

Sunday’s announcement comes as the total number of cases statewide has passed 250,000, doubling since Sept. 20. Since late October, the seven-day average of daily cases and number of current hospitalizations around the state have doubled.

“As the weather gets colder, and people spend more time indoors, this virus will spread,” Whitmer said Sunday. “More people will get sick, and there will be more fatalities. This is the worst public health emergency our nation has faced in over a century. And our response has got to reflect the same level of urgency.”

On Monday, Michigan passed 8,000 COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic. Models say there could be 20,000 more by the end of February, said state Medical Officer Joneigh Khaldun.

In addition to bars and restaurants, the order also suspends operations at businesses such as casinos, ice skating rinks, bowling centers and movie theaters.

Amplifying Whitmer’s warnings about hosting large Thanksgiving dinners, the state imposed new restrictions on indoor gatherings — no more than two households or 10 people.

Organized sports, aside from professional and college sports, will also shut down for three weeks; those sports were allowed to continue as they could meet higher standards of risk mitigation, Whitmer said Sunday. No spectators will be allowed at the professional events, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said Sunday.

Manufacturing and construction will be allowed, as will businesses such as salons and gyms (for individual workouts). Funerals and small outdoor gatherings are capped at 25 people. Church services will still be permitted.

People must also work from home if possible. Unlike the orders issued at the start of the pandemic, people will not be required to stay at home.

Starting Wednesday, Michigan Technological University will move to Phase 5, the most restrictive level of its reopening plan, the university’s Flex Team said in a statement. All in-person educational activities will be suspended through December, and no group gatherings will be permitted. Aside from Thursday’s flu shot clinic, all campus events — including commencement — are canceled. Dining services will also be scaled down.

“We remain optimistic that we will return to face-to-face instruction in January,” the Flex Team said. “However, there are contingency plans in place should we need to continue with remote instruction. A decision about the spring semester will be made no later than Dec. 28, 2020.”

Copper Country Intermediate School District Superintendent George Stockero was glad the new restrictions still allow face-to-face instruction for K-8 and special education students.

“I think the K-8 helps families with daycare and childcare, things like that,” he said. “They’ve shown that the youngest kids don’t show infection rates very much. Our special ed students, I think they struggle to do things remotely, so we want to be able to work with them one on one, face to face. It’s much better for their education.”

Of 200 K-12 outbreaks being investigated by the state, 49% are in high schools, Khaldun said Sunday.

High school students are also more able to reach out on their own to teachers if they have questions, Stockero said.

Starting the new restrictions on Wednesday allows staff to work with students to prepare for the next three weeks, Stockero said.

They’re becoming experienced. Three districts in the ISD — Baraga, L’Anse, and C-L-K — are already in virtual learning because of staffing shortages caused by COVID-19 outbreaks.

After virtual instruction of last spring, Houghton County schools moved to virtual learning for two weeks after a late-September spike in cases.

“Deep down, I believe all schools want to be face to face at all times, but unfortunately going through this multiple times, I think we’re getting better prepared to go through virtual options,” Stockero said.

Over the next three weeks, Whitmer said she would be watching testing rates in the states and percent positivity, as well as talking with health departments and hospitals from around the state to determine if the order should be extended.

The orders were imposed through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, as has been done since the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a 1945 law Whitmer had used as the basis for executive orders after her initial 30-day emergency declaration expired.

The MDHHS authority comes from legislation passed in response to the 1918 flu pandemic. Gordon has relied on the public health code to enact measures such as mask mandates in public spaces and limits on the size of outdoor gatherings.

Whitmer’s announcement met with criticism from the Republican majority in the House and Senate, who criticized her for acting unilaterally. House Rep. Greg Markkanen, R-Hancock, said school districts with no cases should have been allowed to remain open. He also criticized the restrictions on businesses, which he said imposed undue economic harm on businesses that have been following the rules. He also said the limits on indoor gathering went too far, saying “Nobody’s going to tell me who I can allow in my home and who I can’t.”

“I think the governor needs to start working with the legislature instead of making these arbitrary decisions and show us the data that’s supporting these decisions,” he said.

State Sen. Ed McBroom could not be reached for comment Monday.

In response to Sunday’s orders, State Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford Township, said he would be calling for impeachment hearings against the governor. Markkanen had no comment on the matter Monday.

Whitmer said the legislature had been involved in a modeling call with health experts, and in another call during which she unsuccessfully asked them to approve a bill codifying the existence of the mask mandate.

“They all had the information before this press conference,” she said. “But we’ve got to act swiftly. And I’m going to continue to use every tool at my disposal to save lives in Michigan.”

Whitmer said Monday she planned to hold a press conference with other Midwest governors Tuesday to ask President Trump and Congress to approve more aid.

“There are a lot of people who are struggling, have been struggling since that $600 (per week unemployment benefit) went away,” she said Sunday in response to a question about people who might be furloughed because of the order. “And it’s important that we get through the next few months.”

Markkanen preferred to roll back state restrictions than ask for more federal stimulus.

“I’d rather keep our economy going than shutting our economy down and asking for an incentive program,” he said. “The federal government cannot continue to print money.”

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