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A crowd gathers on the Torch Lake Sandbar on Saturday, July 4.

RAPID CITY — Health officials have identified the weekend-long Torch Lake sandbar party and a period of time at a local casino as possible exposure sites for the pandemic disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Officials at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan on Friday announced “several” people who tested positive for COVID-19 indicated they participated in the parties at the Torch Lake sandbar during the Independence Day holiday weekend.

However, those infected could not identify everyone with whom they came into close contact as part of the case investigations, officials said.

"This situation reminds us of how important it is to take precautions such as avoiding large gatherings whenever possible especially without social distancing and masking," said Lisa Peacock, the department's health officer.

The possible exposure period at the Torch Lake sandbar is the duration of the holiday weekend. Anyone who attended the festivities there is advised to monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 and potentially seek testing.

With three law enforcement entities policing the party, Antrim County Sheriff Dan Beale said enforcing social distancing at the annual party that draws thousands wasn't possible. 

"What do you expect to happen when you have that many people?" Beale said. "People have been cooped up for so long and individuals were willing to take the chance whether they would get sick or not."

The almost-certain presence of the virus was the reason Beale said the department did not have officers walking the sandbar to patrol like they have had in year's past. 

Brandon Nichols, owner of Dockside Bar and Restaurant on Torch Lake, said his business was back open that day after being closed out of caution for extensive cleaning.

It came with a change, however, as he said his staff made an effort to sanitize and limit the restaurant's capacity, beyond what they've done so far this summer, that Saturday in particular. 

"As far as the sandbar goes, we were worried about that coming into the summer," Nichols said. "There's really no way to stop that many people going down there."

Additionally, the Grand Traverse County Health Department announced a possible COVID-19 exposure at Turtle Creek Casino during the recent weekend.

Anyone at the blackjack tables at the casino in Williamsburg between 8 and 9:15 p.m. on July 5 should also monitor for COVID-19 symptoms and both seek testing and quarantine should any develop. 

Casino security workers confirmed the guest who tested positive for the disease was temperature tested at the door and wore a mask for the duration of their visit.

"While exposure to our employees and guests is limited because of our mask requirements, plexi-shield precautions, social distancing, continual and deep cleaning, and maximized ventilation systems, we want to inform the public as soon as possible to ensure safety on everyone's behalf," said Michael Schrader, the casino's chief executive officer, in a released statement.

He said casino workers are working with health department officials for contact tracing.

By the numbers

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced 612 new cases of COVID-19, the state’s most since May 20. On Wednesday it announced 610 cases.

MDHHS did not report any deaths within the last day for the second time in a week. The 15 deaths announced were through the process of a vital records review.

Just 35 deaths were announced this week, the lowest 7-day average of the pandemic, outside of those attributed to a vital records review.

Regionally, 11 cases were announced. There were four cases announced in Grand Traverse County, two in Emmet County and one in counties of Crawford, Manistee, Missaukee, Montmorency and Roscommon. 

Whitmer reiterates mask mandate

On the same day the Health Department announced community exposure sites at the Sandbar party, the Governor signed an executive order on Friday, reiterating a previous order that masks are required to be worn in enclosed public spaces in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. It also added the requirement to wear a mask in crowded outdoor areas.

For any business that is open to the public to refuse entry or service to people who refuse to wear a face covering, with limited exceptions. Businesses now must post signs at all entrances instructing customers of their legal obligation to wear a face covering while inside.

Similar orders have been filed by several city, county and state governments nationwide.

The Governor faced questions from reporters in a state press conference on Thursday criticizing the enforcement of the state’s prior mask order.

“We do actually have penalties under the law, the problem of course is making sure that we are enforcing and have compliance,” Whitmer said. “That relies on assistance at the local level, and I think as we see our numbers continue to rise that locals are going to get more active in assisting on this front.”

Nichols said he thought his restaurant would get pushback when the initial mandate went into effect, requiring patrons to wear masks until they reached their tables.

That's not been the case, he said.

"It's been really cool because everyone's kind of just doing their part," Nichols said. "Everybody has had a little bit of a wakeup call. We're kind of a bit in no-mans-land and everybody was like 'okay, it's real, we need to be safe, we need to protect ourselves and we need to protect other people."

The executive order takes effect at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, July 13.

Sheri McWhirter contributed to this report

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