‘Time to play’: Michigan reopens 15 months after pandemic

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MERIDIAN TOWNSHIP — Michigan is fully open again.

After facing 15 months of capacity restrictions and being hit by the country’s worst surge of coronavirus infections this spring, restaurants, entertainment businesses and other venues can operate at 100% occupancy — instead of 50% — starting Tuesday.

Limits on large indoor gatherings like weddings and funerals are gone. So is a broad requirement that the unvaccinated be masked indoors, a rule that remains in about a dozen states. Unvaccinated teen athletes will no longer have to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.

Michigan is among the last states to lift gathering caps, which has frustrated the business community. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and public health officials say the restrictions were needed until enough residents could be vaccinated in a state with about 21,900 suspected virus-related deaths. Last year, Whitmer faced an alleged plot to kidnap her over her coronavirus restrictions.

Roughly 61% of people ages 16 and older have gotten at least one shot. Michigan’s seven-day daily case average, 146, was the lowest since March 2020.

“It’s time to play. It’s time to have fun again,” said Jordan Munsters, co-founder and president of High Caliber Karting and Entertainment, an indoor action park near Lansing where adults can race go-karts, throw axes and smash stuff to smithereens.

Business was booming at the fledgling facility before the virus struck, forcing its closure for nine months under state orders that — unlike in other places — were strictly enforced by the county. Munsters and his parents are personally liable for a business loan, and he worried about losing everything.

Now, Munsters is optimistic — particularly that people cooped up during the pandemic will want to reconnect with others and “experience joy.”

“I have very high hopes. I’m near 100% confidence that we’re going to see a booming experience economy — people who want to travel, people who want to do things,” he said, noting how people bought many items in the pandemic. “I think everybody has got a lot of stuff. I think people are looking for things to do.”

Gyms are among businesses hoping to rebound. They were closed for nearly six months after the virus hit and, when a second wave came last fall, were ordered to ban group classes. They have operated at limited capacity when open.

“This industry, which is cruelly ironic, is on its knees. And we need a seat at the table. We never got one,” said Alyssa Tushman, co-owner of Burn Fitness, which operates two gyms in Rochester Hills and Clawson and has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. A third gym in Livonia closed its doors for good. She said revenue and membership are down 60% across the industry and called for aid in addition to what has been included in federal and state relief packages.

“While member engagement is up and people are coming back, rebuilding a membership base isn’t like just opening doors to a restaurant where people love to come back and get a bite. It takes time,” Tushman said.

Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature are debating how to use $6.5 billion in federal discretionary COVID-19 funding, a portion of which may go to businesses. Local governments are deciding how to use billions in federal relief, too.

As Tushman spoke Monday, Democratic U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills was working out with a personal trainer at Burn Fitness. Asked about Tushman’s situation, Stevens said: “We want to see them through to the other side. That has been my mantra this entire pandemic: That no one is allowed to fail individually, and no business is allowed to fail. And that’s the pace we need to keep at as we make our way through.”

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