Michigan extends workplace virus rules, office restrictions

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LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration on Tuesday extended workplace coronavirus restrictions for an additional six months, including a requirement that Michigan employers prohibit office work if employees’ jobs can feasibly be done remotely.

The emergency rules, which were issued in the fall, could be modified or withdrawn before they expire in mid-October. An advisory group of business, labor and health care leaders is assessing a phased return to offices and may make recommendations to the governor as soon as next week.

Sean Egan, the state’s director of COVID-19 workplace safety, said “some tweaks” possibly could have been made to the regulations now if not for Michigan’s spike in infections. It has the country’s highest two-week case rate, and hospitals were treating more than 4,000 adults with confirmed infections — a daily record that surpassed the previous high from a year ago.

“The case numbers at this time indicate that we’re not quite there yet,” Egan said. “There’s a hazard and we have to mitigate the hazard. … The goal here is separation. Congregation is going to spread the virus. Separation is going to help us mitigate the virus.”

A coalition of business groups had criticized the restrictions on office work, citing competitiveness issues, the mental health of employees, and negative effects on downtowns and municipal governments. Business leaders also have contended there is little evidence of spread within carefully managed offices.

Egan said the rules allow employers to have workers in the office.

“It’s the employer making the determination. So there is room there for them to maneuver,” he said, adding that the state may provide more clarity on the “feasibility” standard.

State officials had indicated publicly for more than a month that the extension was likely. The Democratic governor confirmed Monday it was imminent.

“We need action, not more delay on allowing employees to safely return to the office,” Grand Rapids Chamber President and CEO Rick Baker said in a statement. “Michigan businesses have demonstrated for more than a year that they can follow the proper health requirements to create safe working environments.”

The regulations also require employers to have a written coronavirus preparedness and response plan, and they outline infection-control, screening and other practices. Employers must provide masks and mandate them when workers cannot consistently keep 6 feet (1.83 meters) apart.

There are industry-specific rules covering construction, manufacturing, retail stores, restaurants and bars, health care, in-home services, personal-care services, venues, gyms, meat- and poultry-processing plants, and casinos.

The state has fined or cited about 200 employers for violations.

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