TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers approached the governor’s podium and pulled off his cherry-print cloth face mask, then welcomed visitors back to the Cherry Capitol.
“Traverse City is a place to come and enjoy, be with family, surround yourself with the natural resources that make Michigan so great and just be happy,” Carruthers said.
The mayor said the welcome mat is out — but he wants visitors to be careful how they both come up north and behave once arrived.
“Stopping the spread of this virus is still key and if we can’t, then we will have to close it down again,” he said.
Carruthers joined Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her Monday afternoon press conference about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, when she said up north economies will begin to re-open this week.
The governor signed an executive order that authorizes the re-opening of retail businesses, office work that can’t be remotely done, plus bars and restaurants with seating limited to 50 percent capacity. The partial re-engagement of the economy will begin Friday in both the Upper Peninsula and the most northern stretches of Lower Michigan — from Manistee to Alpena and the entire tip of the mitt.
The governor said it’s a big step, but it doesn’t mean the pandemic crisis is over.
“It’s crucial that all businesses do everything in their power to protect their workers, customers and their families. And as we approach Memorial Day weekend, I encourage everyone to be smart and be safe,” Whitmer said.
That means workers must wear masks and practice stringent workplace infection-control measures, she said.
Local governments may enforce a more cautious approach, the governor said, such as limiting restaurant seating to outdoor dining areas.
Carruthers said whether to restrict restaurants to outdoor-only dining could be considered by Traverse City leaders at a special session before Friday’s partial re-engagement of the local economy. He’ll ask city commissioners what they want to do.
Kalkaska Village President Harley Wales said he’s pleased with the planned partial re-opening just in time for the Memorial Day weekend. Officials there don’t intend to put further restrictions on businesses, as allowed in Whitmer’s latest executive order.
“We think they’ve suffered enough,” Wales said.
In fact, he said the Kal-Ho Lounge in downtown Kalkaska will open at 12:01 a.m. Friday — the precise moment the governor’s executive order allows.
In Elk Rapids, Village President Jim Janisse said officials are discussing whether to close off River Street to traffic for enhanced pedestrian and outdoor dining space, just like Traverse City officials have proposed.
Village officials also intend to install multiple hands-free sanitizer stations around town, Janisse said, and perhaps even hire a “clean team” to keep Elk Rapids’ downtown handrails, trash cans, public bathrooms, wayfinding signs and more continually sanitized.
It’s a similar story in Frankfort, said City Superintendent Joshua Mills, where officials are now surveying local business operators about what’s needed to safely open — whether masks, plastic barriers or other supplies and services. Officials will focus on supporting business owners and operators in this critical time, he said.
Frankfort may also periodically shut down its Main Street for special events, Mills said, and might set up picnic tables in public parking lots to encourage safe take-out dining options downtown. He said seasonal workers will be on the clock this week to help prepare the community for Friday’s coming changes.
“We’re gearing up for a new normal,” Mills said.
Whitmer said both the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Michigan have “just not been hit as hard with COVID-19,” and are in a better position to begin to phase in different sectors of the economy.
Only two additional cases of the disease have been discovered in the entire 17-county region since Saturday, one in Leelanau County and the other in Roscommon County.
State health officials announced 24 additional deaths on Monday, along with 773 new cases — of which 513 were discovered through enhanced testing in state prisons. That brings Michigan’s tally to 51,916 confirmed cases since the pandemic began and 4,915 related deaths as of Monday, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Low case numbers in up north areas means it’s time to test the waters there, said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive.
“The data shows that these regions in Michigan are seeing consistent encouraging trends when it comes to the number of cases, deaths, and the percent of tests that are positive for COVID-19,” Khaldun said.
Businesses that re-open must take special precautions and create a required safety plan, she said.
“I also encourage everyone to continue to wear a mask in public, maintain a 6-foot distance from others, and to remain vigilant in washing their hands often. This will help prevent a second surge in cases in our state,” Khaldun said.
Overnight lodging operations like hotels are not yet authorized to resume activity, Whitmer said.
Meanwhile, the whole state will be watching how well up north handles the relaxed restrictions, officials agreed.
Justin Winslow, president of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, said the livelihood of those who own or work in businesses in southern parts of the state are directly tied to how well up north businesses return to partial operations.
“Restaurants in the U.P. and northern Michigan understand that with their opportunity comes an extraordinary responsibility to operate in a manner that ensures the safety of their guests and their employees. I believe they are up to the challenge,” he said.
Whitmer said the news is reason for optimism in the fight against the coronavirus crisis, but even a small spike in cases in northern communities could put local hospitals in “dire straits,” requiring a subsequent clamping down on the economy again.
That’s something local leaders said they know well.
“We are being used as the experiment. It’s important not to screw this up,” Wales said.