Emails reveal Michigan officials had more cautious restaurant plan before Gordon's exit

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Mar. 31—LANSING — Michigan's top health officials initially crafted a more cautious approach to reopening indoor dining at restaurants than what Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveiled in January, according to internal emails released through open records requests.

The messages show that one week before the Jan. 22 press conference to announce the reopening of eateries, the leaders of the state Department of Health and Human Services shared a plan to generally restrict restaurant capacity to 20 people, a fifth of what the limit ended up being. Having a "ton of people" in a room increases the risk that one person has COVID-19 and the risk of a "super spreader," wrote Robert Gordon, the state's then-health director, in a separate email on Jan. 15.

The emails suggest there were internal concerns about looming jumps in coronavirus cases. In recent weeks, Michigan has moved from near the bottom of rankings for new cases per population to the top, but restaurants haven't necessarily been specified as the main culprit.

The emails also demonstrate contrasts between the tone Whitmer took at the press conference and the tone planned by the leadership team around Gordon, who resigned without explanation about five hours after the Jan. 22 event.

"We continue to emphasize dining indoors at restaurants is a high-risk activity," Gordon said in the initial draft version of a press release announcing indoor dining could relaunch on Feb. 1. "It requires removal of masks which are scientifically proven to reduce the spread of the virus. We urge everyone to continue getting take-out, delivery or dining outdoors if possible."

The urging of potential diners to continue getting take-out, instead of eating inside restaurants, had been changed by the final version of the press release that was provided to the media on the morning of Jan. 22. Instead, Gordon said the "safest course remains to support your favorite restaurant with carryout, delivery or outdoor dining."

Gordon "often made edits to proposed quotes to reflect the message he wished to announce in press releases and other publications," Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said Tuesday.

As for the differences between the plan health officials floated on Jan. 15 and what was announced on Jan. 22, Sutfin said there were changes made throughout the decision-making process that included collaboration with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, stakeholders in the restaurant industry and the governor's office.

As the health director under Michigan law, Gordon was the state official with the power to issue epidemic orders to limit public gatherings or to ease the previously imposed restrictions. He agreed to sign the order allowing indoor dining at restaurants with a 10 p.m. curfew and a 25% capacity limit at 7:49 a.m on Jan. 22, less than two hours before the 9:30 a.m. press conference.

Just before 3 p.m., he announced his resignation on Twitter.

Initially, Gordon and Whitmer's legal counsel, Mark Totten, agreed to a $155,506 separation deal that barred the former health director from discussing the circumstances of his departure. The Detroit News uncovered the agreement on March 1. Facing criticism from the public and Republican lawmakers, Gordon and Whitmer agreed to lift the confidentiality clause on March 18.

Still, Whitmer has declined to provide additional details about what occurred. In a letter to Michigan House Oversight Chairman Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, Gordon said "reasonable people" disagreed in decisions related to the state's COVID-19 response, but he hasn't identified what the disagreements were.

"This was healthy: the stakes were life and death, and different people have different roles," the former state health director wrote to Johnson.

Gordon didn't respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

Health officials' differing plan

On Jan. 15, seven days before the Jan. 22 press conference, Sarah Esty, who served as a deputy director under Gordon, shared a PowerPoint presentation entitled "Michigan's restaurant reopening plan" with Gordon; Jonathan Warsh, the department's chief of staff; and Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, senior public health physician.

The presentation was marked "draft," "confidential" and "pre-decisional."

Under the plan, all restaurants in Michigan would face a 10 p.m. curfew and a limit of no more than six people per table from the same household. They would also be capped at 20 people.

If the restaurants underwent inspections, implemented a ventilation plan and prominently posted a code of conduct for customers, they would be deemed "five-star" businesses, allowing their capacity to move up to 100 people.

But that draft was not the order the Whitmer administration released on Jan. 22. Instead, all restaurants could have up to 25% capacity or 100 people, and the state offered voluntary participation in a "MI COVID-19 Safer Dining program" that allowed food service establishments to become certified by having their ventilation system inspected and submitting their inspection report to the state. The order also allowed individuals from multiple households to eat together in restaurants.

In an email to Esty, Warsh and Bagdasarian on Jan. 15, Gordon had advocated for a "phased approach" to reopening and stricter capacity limits. A "huge step risks having to quickly step back," the health director said.

Like Gordon, both Esty and Warsh no longer work for the state health department.

In the same Jan. 15 message, Gordon cautioned that a COVID-19 variant "could take over by March." That was a day before Michigan announced its first case of the B.1.1.7 variant from the United Kingdom.

On Tuesday, more than two months later, Ruthanne Sudderth, spokeswoman for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, said her organization believes the B.1.1.7 variant is "widespread" in Michigan and "is much more contagious and can be more deadly."

Michigan has the second-highest number of United Kingdom variant cases in the country at 1,279 confirmed cases and five possible cases through Monday. It trails Florida's 2,351 B.1.1.7 cases, according to the CDC's website.

Growing case numbers

In announcing Gordon's resignation on Jan. 22, Whitmer also said Elizabeth Hertel would become the new director of the Department of Health and Human Services. Hertel had been one of Gordon's deputies.

Since the change, Whitmer's administration has focused heavily on efforts to vaccinate Michigan residents against COVID-19 and has lifted restrictions on gatherings and businesses.

In addition to allowing indoor dining to resume on Feb. 1, the administration allowed high school contact sports to restart on Feb. 8, Whitmer advocated for all schools to offer in-person instruction by March 1, Hertel allowed restaurant capacity to increase to 50% on March 5 and Hertel issued an order raising capacity limits at outdoor stadiums on March 19.

The Whitmer administration previously had spaced out restriction changes by three to four weeks to gauge the repercussions, which can take more than four weeks to surface in COVID-19 metrics.

Michigan's coronavirus case rates and the percentage of tests bringing positive results have been increasing since late February, and some public health experts have tied the jump to the decisions to ease gathering restrictions.

Last week, the state reported 27,758 new COVID-19 cases, a 14-week high, and hospitalizations have increased at a faster rate over the last two weeks than during the fall surge. Internal emails among state health officials from January included promises to "re-assess" restrictions on indoor dining if cases jumped.

"Moving forward, we hope that cases remain under control," a set of health department "talking points" from Jan. 21 said. "As we have done for a year, we will hope to loosen today's order if things improve, and we will consider tightening if they do not."

"If we see concerning increases, particularly in our two leading indicators (positivity and case counts), we will have to re-assess," the "talking points" added under the question "what would have to happen for you to close restaurants again."

At the Jan. 22 press conference, Whitmer's statements were different than the planned health department "talking points," which were not released publicly. Asked about the possibility of a "second pause," Whitmer began, "Our goal is to make sure that we don't have to take another pause in this space."

Amid the rising case numbers last Thursday during the Michigan Chronicle's Pancakes & Politics event, Whitmer said her administration is not "actively considering" imposing new restrictions to stem jumps in COVID-19 infections in Michigan.

Epidemic orders

Dr. Walid Gellad, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's school of medicine, has been raising concerns about Michigan's climbing COVID-19 numbers in recent days. Asked if he believes it was a mistake to reopen indoor dining on Feb. 1, Gellad declined to provide a direct answer.

"What I will say is that people in communities get a message from those who set these policies," Gellad said. "If all they see is talk about how things are getting better, how businesses are reopening, how vaccines are going great, then they get a message that the pandemic is over.

"Right now, Michigan should be doing everything they can to stop the increase in cases and hospitalizations."

Less than an hour before Gordon announced his Jan. 22 resignation on Twitter, deputy director Esty emailed a four-page document on the Whitmer administration's epidemic order process to Ashley Hill, who works on policy and strategic initiatives for the department.

The document, which shines light on the internal discussions behind restrictions on gatherings and businesses, said that "no orders go out" until the governor's office, the state's top doctors and the Attorney General's Office "are comfortable with the content." The process seems to indicate that the state's health experts and Whitmer's office ultimately were "comfortable" with the Jan. 22 order.

Asked if any health department experts advised against reopening indoor dining the way it was announced on Jan. 22, department spokeswoman Sutfin said she doesn't have firsthand knowledge of that advice.

"There are often discussions that involve multiple points of view when policy decisions are being determined," Sutfin said.

In internal emails from January, health department officials and the executive office had also discussed plans to share information with the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, an organization that lobbies on behalf of restaurants, three days before the new epidemic order was publicly announced and Gordon's resignation.

On Jan. 17, Emily Schwarzkopf, director of legislative, appropriations and constituent services for the department, informed Esty, Hertel and Sarah Triplett, Whitmer's director of public affairs, that the association's lobbyist had requested information on the reopening plan as the association was "actively talking their board members out of a rally at the Capitol."

"(I) think providing information sooner rather than later could further deter that from happening," Schwarzkopf said.

The following day, Jennifer Flood, Whitmer's deputy chief of staff, signed off on briefing the restaurant association on the plans.

Jim Haveman, who served as the health director under former Govs. John Engler and Rick Snyder, said there's a "give and take" when it comes to policy in an administration. When a governor is no longer happy with an appointee, the appointee will quickly hear about it, he said.

"The governor's umbrella is pretty big," Haveman said. "And the governor's umbrella covers all of those departments. And you as the director have to stay under that umbrella."