Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has eased numerous COVID-related restrictions on business sectors and other activities the past two months, and in many cases, the outbreaks for the corresponding sector increased since then, according to a MIRS review of weekly outbreak data reported to the state.
The outbreak categories that encompass restaurants and bars, some youth sports, retail, exercise facilities, indoor community exposures and social gatherings have all increased by various amounts since restrictions eased on those respective industries or functions.

That doesn’t include outbreaks tied to K-12 school settings, which were given the goal but not the mandate by Whitmer to resume some in-person learning by March 1. Almost all districts in the state were expected to begin some in-person instruction by that date, and school outbreaks have been steadily increasing since then.

The COVID outbreak data published by the state each week come with a number of caveats, including that the data may not capture every case outbreak in a certain setting.

Also, outbreaks associated with certain places may not mean the virus was transmitted there directly. For instance, school groups have insisted COVID outbreaks at schools aren’t happening in the classrooms directly.

It’s been established that COVID data trends in Michigan are on the rise in general, as well.

March 26, the state reported another 5,030 confirmed cases, marking two days in a row of 5,000-plus cases, the first time since early December that’s happened. The total cases now stand at 647,899 and another 20 deaths added March 26 bring the state above 16,000 for the pandemic, to 16,004.

Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said, “we knew there was a possibility that as we reopened parts of the economy that there could be increased transmission and outbreaks of the virus.”

Sutfin said “our goal is to reengage while reducing public health risk which is why we move slowly to maintain progress and momentum with thoughtful public health measures. We will continue to monitor the data to make decisions including three key metrics: case rates, percent positivity, and hospitalizations.”

The MIRS review of outbreak data showed increased outbreaks between the week of eased restrictions and the most recent data available from the week of March 18 for several sectors of society.

The week restaurants and bars were allowed to re-open to 25 percent capacity—Feb. 1—there were three total outbreaks reported to the state among those industries.

By the week of March 18 there were 16 total outbreaks, 15 tied to restaurants. Since Feb. 1, bars and restaurants have been allowed to double capacity to 50 percent.

Yet Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in the two months restaurants have been reopen to indoor dining, there’s been “one singular outbreak investigation of COVID-19 transmission tied to a restaurant patron despite consistent attendance throughout this period.”

Winslow added that “there are a small number of employee related investigations, but it is not now, nor has it ever been clear that the transmission occurs as a direct function of their employment.”

During the week of Feb. 8, indoor high school sports were allowed to resume. Sutfin said youth sports outbreaks could fall into two categories—if it’s a school team, it would show up in the schools category. Those outbreaks have gone up.

If it’s a club, it would likely show up under the childcare and youth programs category. During the week of Feb. 8, that category was listed as having 22 outbreaks. By the week of March 18, that outbreak number had more than doubled, to 66.

The epidemic orders issued by the DHHS on March 2 eased restrictions in numerous ways. MIRS counted at least 12 different restrictions that were altered in those orders.

Retail was allowed to go to 50 percent capacity in the March 2 order. That week, there were 28 retail-associated outbreaks reported to the state. As of March 18, that number climbed to 49 outbreaks.

William Hallan, president and CEO of Michigan Retailers Association, said, “it is likely that the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases we are seeing could be attributed a community spread due to relaxed restrictions in other activities.”

He also said businesses must report when a worker caught COVID and there’s “a general assumption that the cases are linked to the workplace” although that person could have gotten it another way.

There were smaller outbreak increases associated with exercise facilities, as well as places that host indoor and outdoor events and social gatherings.

Gyms were allowed to go to 30 percent capacity, and the personal services outbreak category—which includes gyms alongside places like spas—went from five outbreaks to seven outbreaks in the same time period.

Casinos, indoor entertainment venues and stadiums all saw capacity increases in the March 2 order. The outbreak category labeled as indoor community exposures was at 0 that week and increased to five by the week of March 18.

Both indoor and outdoor residential gatherings got higher capacity levels under the order that went out the same week that social gatherings outbreaks were at 11 statewide. As of March 18, there were 15 such social gathering outbreaks reported.

One of the outbreak categories that hasn’t increased is the one that includes nursing homes and other long-term facilities, despite the epidemic order allowing in-person visitation at nursing homes in early March.

During the first week of March, there were 167 total outbreaks in long-term care facilities. As of March 18, there were 132 total outbreaks across the state tied to those facilities.

Outdoor non-residential gatherings, as well as entertainment and recreational facilities, got new allowances on capacities in the March order, but the number of outbreaks then and now were listed at zero.

This story courtesy of MIRS, a Lansing-based news and information service.