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Whitmer tightens social gathering limits

AP File Photo In a photo provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. The governor delivered remarks addressing Michiganders after the Michigan Attorney General, Michigan State Police, U.S. Department of Justice, and FBI announced state and federal charges against 13 members of two militia groups who were preparing to kidnap and possibly kill the governor.

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration on Thursday tightened restrictions on indoor social gatherings and shifted the Traverse City region backward in Michigan’s reopening plan, saying coronavirus hospitalizations have doubled in three weeks and the statewide death rate has risen for five straight weeks.

The state Department of Health and Human Services revised and extended mask and other rules.

Effective immediately, indoor venues without fixed seating must limit gatherings such as weddings and parties to no more than 50 people — down from a maximum of 500. Restaurants, bars and other venues must seat no more than six people at a table. All dine-in establishments must keep customers’ names and phone numbers for contact-tracing purposes, starting Monday.

Coronavirus-related orders are now coming out of the state health agency after the Michigan Supreme Court said Whitmer’s executive orders had been based on an unconstitutional law.

In a sharply worded statement on Thursday, state Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, who represents Northeast Michigan, asked if Whitmer is trying to keep voters from voting on Tuesday.

“I am frustrated and extremely disappointed that the governor continues to go it alone and refuses to accept the Supreme Court’s message to work together with the Legislature regarding our response to the COVID-19 outbreak,” Stamas said. “She is using every trick to keep power and keep Michigan’s families isolated. “Michigan needs to resume life safely, but the governor and her departments’ continued use of fear tactics could impede that goal and even suppress the vote in next week’s election if voters fear it’s unsafe to go to the polls.”

The state said indoor settings are as much as 20 times more likely to drive COVID-19 outbreaks than outdoor settings. It also recommended that people keep their voices down at social events, warning that shouting or cheering can increase the virus in the air by up to 30 times.

As before, violators can face a misdemeanor and fines, including up to $1,000 for each violation or day that a violation continues.

Robert Gordon, director of the health department, said educating residents to come into voluntary compliance is preferred over punishing them.

“The heart of our effort to beat COVID will be in the hearts and minds of individual Michiganders… choosing to protect human life and to act on the science,” he told reporters in a virtual news conference. The focus of the order, he said, is to reduce the size of non-residential indoor gatherings at places without fixed seating — banquets, weddings and conferences where people move around, chat, dance, eat and drink.

“We urge folks to get together outside whenever that is possible. The risks are much higher inside than outside,” Gordon said. “If you are inside, include no more than two households and never more than 10 people.”

Under the order, a 17-county area in the upper Lower Peninsula that was in phase five joins Michigan’s seven other regions in phase four. That means masks are mandatory in K-12 classrooms, people who can work remotely are required to do so, and gatherings at venues must be slightly smaller.

The latest average positivity rate in Michigan is 5.52%, up from 3.75% two weeks ago. State health departments are calculating positivity rates differently across the country, but for Michigan The Associated Press calculates the rate by dividing new cases by test specimens using data from The COVID Tracking Project.

The seven-day average of daily new cases in Michigan has risen over the past two weeks from 1,337 to 2,580. The seven-day average of daily deaths has increased from 14 to nearly 27 over the same period.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said unlike in the spring, most hospitalizations for the virus are now outside metro Detroit.

The Alpena News contributed to this story.

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