Whitmer plans to further ease coronavirus restrictions
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday her administration will announce the further loosening of Michigan’s coronavirus restrictions in coming days.
She did not elaborate much in a news conference, in which she again pressed the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass a multibillion-dollar COVID-19 relief funding plan. She did say she was hopeful about easing nursing home visitation rules as soon as next week.
A state health department order limits indoor restaurant capacity to 25%, imposes a 10 p.m. curfew and restricts the size of inside residential gatherings to no more than 10 people from two households, through March 29. There also are similar capacity limits for gyms and entertainment venues.
“We’re expecting to make more announcements on additional reengagements in the coming days. Our case numbers and public health metrics are trending in the right direction. I’m very pleased to see that,” the Democratic governor said.
Shortly after Whitmer’s update, a GOP-led Senate panel approved $2.5 billion-plus in federal and state coronavirus-related funding, less than half of what would be provided under her $5.6 billion proposal, with remaining federal aid approved by Congress and former President Donald Trump held in reserve. The Senate proposes boosting a $2 hourly wage hike for direct care workers — now set to expire Sunday without legislative action — to $2.25 and extending it through Sept. 30.
There would be $1.2 billion for K-12 education and $672 million for vaccine distribution, COVID-19 testing and emergency rental assistance. The Senate proposes $427 million in relief for businesses hurt by the pandemic — primarily with grants to cover some or all of their property taxes — and a $150 million deposit into the unemployment fund, to soften future higher taxes on employers. Businesses that could qualify for aid include bowling alleys, casinos, gyms, restaurants, bars, hair salons, nurseries and tattoo parlors.
Over Democrats’ objections, Republicans added a provision to a vaccine-funding bill aimed at forcing the state to distribute doses solely based on the local number of eligible individuals. The state health department is weighting population-based allocations with “social vulnerability index” factors such as poverty, lack of transportation and crowded housing — which the director has said correlates very closely with communities that were hardest hit by COVID-19 last spring.
The amendment would prohibit the use of race, gender, color, national origin, religion, sex or socioeconomic status as factors.
Sen. Tom Barrett, a Charlotte Republican, said it would ensure equitable distribution of the vaccine and take away the state’s “social justice platform.”
But Sen. Sylvia Santana, a Detroit Democrat, said minorities, including African Americans, and poor people have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
“We already have a lack of vaccines in this state and it’s not about one community getting the vaccine over another,” she said.
The Senate will vote on some or all of the bills on Thursday. The House passed a near-$3.6 billion plan weeks ago. Senators have not embraced House Republicans’ bid to tie school funding to a bill that would shift the power to close schools or sports to local health departments instead of the state health department.
Also Wednesday, the governor reported that 97% of Michigan’s 537 traditional K-12 districts will offer some form of face-to-face learning by March 1 — the date by which she had strongly recommended that the option be available. Having in-person instruction is “crucial,” she said, citing academic consequences and disheartening impacts on children’s mental and physical health.
“In Michigan, we’ve seen few large outbreaks in preK-12 schools and very little evidence of outbreaks due to in-person classroom learning,” Whitmer said.
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