- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2020

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Restaurants, bars and other retail businesses can reopen in much of northern Michigan starting Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Monday - a key step for the tourism-dependent region before the Memorial Day weekend and summer season.

Bars and restaurants, which have only been able to do pickup and delivery due to coronavirus restrictions, will have to limit capacity to 50%. Groups must stay 6 feet apart, and servers will have to wear face coverings. Office business also will be able to resume if work cannot be performed remotely.

The governor’s latest coronavirus stay-at-home order still keeps food and drink establishments off limits to dine-in customers in 51 counties with 93% of the state’s 10 million people. Other places of public accommodation such as movie theaters, gyms and hair salons remain closed statewide, at least through May 28.

Whitmer called the partial reopening of northern Michigan a “big step,” but urged people to not “go rushing out.” She recommended that residents considering visiting the Upper Peninsula or a 17-county region of the northern Lower Peninsula - home to 7% of the population and just 1% of Michigan’s 4,915 deaths related to COVID-19 - to “think long and hard.”

“The whole state is watching to make sure we get this right,” said Whitmer, a Democrat who has been criticized by Republican lawmakers for not restarting the economy sooner by region. “If we get this right, we will be able to take the next step.”

She said she was hopeful about announcing the restart of sectors “in the lower parts of our state” before the three-day holiday weekend.

Whitmer also issued an order requiring businesses or operations that are allowed to require their employees to leave home for work to develop a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan and make it available to employees and customers by June 1 or within two weeks of resuming in-person activities, whichever is later.

The state on Monday reported 24 additional deaths related to COVID-19, raising the total to 4,915.

Whitmer’s move applies to two of the eight regions established as part of her “MI Safe Start” plan. She pointed to their new cases per million residents each day - less than five and two - compared to the statewide average of 33. The Upper Peninsula and Traverse City region account for 1% of deaths. About 79% of deaths are from three counties in metro Detroit.

Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers, who attended Whitmer’s news conference in Lansing, said “our welcome mat is out there” but also noted many major summer festivals - economic drivers for the region - have been canceled due to the pandemic. The reopening will be slow to ensure safety, he said.

“We still must practice social distancing. We must wear our masks. We must be mindful of this virus that is still spreading,” he said. Small towns in the region with fewer hospital beds, he said, have “limited abilities to take care of you if you should get sick.”

Under the governor’s worker safeguards, restaurants and bars must close waiting areas and ask customers to wait in cars until their table is ready; close self-serve food and drink options such as buffets and salad bars; post signs telling customers to wear masks until they get to their table; and install barriers such as sneeze guards and partitions at cash registers, bars, host stands and other areas where maintaining 6 feet distance is difficult.

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