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Moving Michigan back to phase 3 is ‘probably inevitable’ if behaviors don’t change

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Gerry Anderson isn’t ready to advise Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to move the state of Michigan back to phase 3 of the six-phase MI Safe Start Plan, which featured no gatherings, no in-person education, and limiting non-essential retail to curbside or delivery.

But the chairman of the Michigan Economic Recovery Council said it’s “probably inevitable” that the entire state will need to regress to the “flattening phase” if residents don’t take efforts to reduce the growing spread of COVID-19.

“Our hope is we can have moves related to people’s behaviors before we have to do things like regress economic activity further,” said Anderson, who is the Executive Chairman of DTE Energy. “I really believe this is in the personal realm and the social realm now.

“If we don’t make changes in those realms, you’re left with blunter tools, and you don’t want to get to the blunter tools.”

The governor’s office didn’t return a message from MLive seeking comment from Whitmer. However, earlier this month, in an interview with CNN, she said she’d move the state backward on reopening phases and restrict which businesses could be open if the spread of the virus warranted it.

“... we’re going to continue to monitor the numbers,” Whitmer said on July 7. “If they keep moving up, we’re going to dial back if we have to, and it’s the last thing any of us wants.”

The Michigan Economic Recovery Council is made up of two advisory groups: a health care group of hospital, health department and university leaders, and an economic group made up of business and union leaders.

Anderson oversees both groups, which worked together to come up with the six-phase MI Safe Start Plan. Other members of the council declined to be interviewed, and directed all questions to Anderson.

When the plan was introduced on May 7, Michigan was in phase three and under the governor’s stay home order. Within two weeks, the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula moved to phase four, which allowed the reopening of retail business, bars and restaurants with capacity restrictions.

On June 1, the rest of the state moved into phase four as well.

Under the MI Safe Start Plan, bars and restaurants weren’t supposed to reopen before phase five. Anderson said the decision to do so a phase early was decided by the governor’s administration, not the council, and was likely a “good faith” attempt given the positive health trends and the needs of businesses to get back to work.

“At the time, we had a lot of bars and restaurants on a lifeline really, and I think we also saw the state’s health indicators continuing to steadily improve,” he said.

While many businesses proved they could reopen safely, some bars attracted “dangerous behaviors,” Anderson said, as he shared anecdotes of shoulder-to-shoulder drinking.

By June 10, Northern Michigan again got to move into phase five ahead of the rest of the state. Whitmer said she hoped to move the rest of the state forward by July 4, but held off when new cases began to increase again.

“We were pushing toward phase five; we were right there, until we let our guard down,” Anderson said.

The state had its average new cases per day down from 1,626 on April 4 to 150 on June 10. By the end of June, the state was back up to nearly 350 cases per day and on July 18 the average surpassed 600 new cases per day.

“Since early June, we’ve seen backtracking in every region of the state and that’s sad,” Anderson said. “It really resulted from people in their social lives saying I’m tired of it. Some took the removal of the Stay Home Stay Safe order that we were not at risk anymore. There were parties of 20-50 people behaving like this passed us.

“You saw what happened at Harper’s (Restaurant and Brewpub), at Diamond Lake, with the case in Saline, and many smaller versions of that. It’s not everyone, but it’s enough that it’s moved the numbers in a serious way.”

Deaths linked to COVID-19 haven’t followed the rise of new cases, though health officials warn that deaths are a lagging indicator.

Hospitalizations and the percent of tests coming back positive for COVID-19 have begun to increase as well.

According to the MI Safe Start Plan, a consistent rise in new cases would qualify somewhere between phases two and three. Anderson noted that regions in phase five are at risk of moving back to phase four, and that regions in phase four have shown markers of phase three.

But he said the governor’s administration has made it clear that it won’t move the state back based on a singular trigger, and will instead look at “a host of factors and apply judgement.”

The Economic Recovery Council continues to meet on a weekly basis. Rather than make changes to the state’s reopening plan, the council has moved on to a second mission -- raising awareness and trying to convince Michiganders to be as disciplined as they were in May and early June.

Anderson said the council has compiled a “multi-million dollar pool” to fund a media campaign aimed at increasing the state’s discipline to prevent a second wave. That includes wearing masks in public spaces, practicing social distancing, and limiting large groups where social distancing isn’t possible.

“As we move from phase three to four to five, our freedoms increase because we’re doing a better job,” Anderson said. “If we want to be freer, we need the appropriate discipline to deserve that freedom.

“It’s the mindset of 10 million people that’s driving this. It’s millions of personal decisions driving us. We need less individual mindsets and more community mindsets.”

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