Gov. Whitmer OKs nonessential health procedures, small gatherings

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. Hours later, she won the first legal round over Republican lawmakers who challenged her authority to extend emergencies without their approval and order sweeping restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

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 reported 5,129 confirmed deaths due to coronavirus complications, fourth-most in the U.S. The death toll rose by 69, although 31 of the newly recorded deaths may have occurred days or weeks ago. It can take time to match death certificates to confirmed cases. The average age of death was 77. The number of new infections rose by 501 to 53,510.

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, said Whitmer, who later visited a drive-thru site in Lansing to be tested for the virus for the first time. She said she had no symptoms — she largely has led the state’s response to the outbreak from home — but did it to show the public how easy it is.

Whitmer also helped pass out meals at a Lansing school on the same day President Donald Trump visited a Detroit-area Ford plant that has been repurposed to make ventilators.

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.”

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