Metrics for Michigan: Slow Rolling to Normal

Governor’s plan may mean restrictions last far longer than those in other states

After refusing for more than a year to specify what data drove her COVID-19 policies, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer finally announced metrics that she’ll use to relax and eventually remove the state’s current restrictions on public interactions and private gatherings. Last May, for instance, she said, “There’s no textbook specific number that will tell you it is safe to reengage a particular sector of the economy.” Eventually, though, she found some.

The governor’s “Vacc to Normal” plan calls for reopening and allowing various activities based on the percentage of Michiganders 16 and older who have gotten a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Two weeks after meeting a threshold, certain restrictions will be lifted. At 55%, in-person work will no longer be restricted. At 60%, capacity limits will be expanded for some businesses, and all indoor capacity limits will be removed at 65%. Finally, at 70%, the state health department’s epidemic orders, which include the statewide mask mandate, will be rescinded.

While this plan provides much-needed clarity and predictability to the state’s response, it may result in Michigan being one of the last states to remove COVID-19 restrictions.

The governor’s reopening metric currently sits at 51%. It has steadily increased since vaccinations started, but the rate of increase has slowed in the last couple weeks. But even if there is no decline in the rate at which people get vaccinated, the state projects it will take until Aug. 1 to reach 70%. If vaccinations continue at a slower pace, however, the state expects to be at only 60-65% by Aug. 1. That might mean restrictions last into the fall.

Meanwhile, states all across the country are moving to lift their COVID-19 restrictions much sooner. Here’s just some of the recently announced changes other states are making:

  • Louisiana ended its statewide mask mandate on April 28, removed capacity limits on outdoor events and upped indoor capacity restrictions to 75%, or 100% if masks are worn.
  • Maryland removed its outdoor mask mandate on April 28, and all restrictions on outdoor dining ended May 1.
  • Connecticut lifted all outdoor restrictions on businesses on May 1, and all remaining business restrictions will end May 19.
  • New Jersey will end capacity restrictions on most businesses on May 19.
  • New York will similarly end most capacity restrictions on May 19 and increase social gathering limits.
  • Delaware plans to lift capacity limits for churches and most businesses on May 21.
  • Pennsylvania will remove all restrictions except its mask mandate on May 31.
  • Minnesota will end capacity limits on gatherings and businesses on May 28, and all masking requirements will end by no later than July 1.

If more states follow this lead, Michigan may find itself as one of the last states with severe restrictions in place over the summer. Several other states, of course, like Texas and Florida, did away with all of their COVID-19 regulations months ago.

It’s also possible that the state’s projections are optimistic. A vaccination effort at this scale has never been tried before in Michigan, so it is hard to know what to expect. But one thing seems likely: Increasing the vaccination rate will get progressively more difficult. It may be that the remaining people need more convincing than others to get the vaccine. And it’s possible that more than 30% of the population 16 and older will simply refuse the vaccine altogether.

Gov. Whitmer will be in a tricky position if it takes a long time to reach these vaccination thresholds, especially as the rest of the nation largely returns to normal. That will frustrate Michiganders, as will seeing all the COVID-19 numbers improve except for the one that the governor now says is the most important. In the end, Gov. Whitmer may find herself abandoning the only metric-based plan she’s ever committed to.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.