EAST TAWAS – It’s nothing we’ve seen before in our lifetimes.

With sweeping closures across the nation, state and locally, officials have taken steps in order to slow the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced late Thursday night she’s ordered the closure of all K-12 school buildings, public, private and boarding, to students that began Monday, March 16 until Sunday, April 5. School buildings are scheduled to reopen on Monday, April 6.

“This is a necessary step to protect our kids, our families and our overall public health,” said Whitmer. “I am working with partners across state government to ensure educators, parents, and students have the support they need during this time, and to ensure our children who rely on school for meals have access to food. 

“I know this will be a tough time, but we’re doing this to keep the most people we can safe. I urge everyone to make smart choices during this time and to do everything they can to protect themselves and their families.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) announced Sunday 20 additional positive cases of COVID-19. This brings the state total of COVID-19 cases to 53. There were just two positive cases as of Tuesday, March 10. By early Monday afternoon, the state announced no known positive cases of COVID-19 in Iosco County.

Additionally, Whitmer announced Monday morning she signed Executive Order 2020-9, which temporarily closes theaters, bars, and casinos, and limits restaurants to carry-out and delivery orders.  

Under Executive Order 2020-9, effective Monday, March 16 at 3 p.m., the following places of public accommodation will be closed: restaurants, cafes, coffee houses, bars, taverns, brewpubs, distilleries, clubs, movie theaters, indoor and outdoor performance venues, gymnasiums, fitness centers, recreation centers, indoor sports facilities, indoor exercise facilities, exercise studios, spas and casinos.   

Whitmer said this order does not restrict a place of business from offering food and beverage using delivery service, window service, walk-up service, drive-through service or drive-up service. Places of public accommodation are encouraged to do so and use precautions to mitigate potential transmission of COVID-19, including social distancing. Restaurants may allow five people inside at a time to pick up orders, so long as they stay six feet apart from each other. 

She said these restrictions do not apply to the following locations: office buildings, grocery stores, markets, food pantries, pharmacies, drug stores, and providers of medical equipment and supplies, health care facilities, residential care facilities, congregate care facilities, and juvenile justice facilities, warehouse and distribution centers, and industrial and manufacturing facilities.   

Order restrictions will remain in place until Monday, March 30 at 11:59 p.m.    

“This disease is a challenge unlike any we’ve experienced in our lifetimes,” said Whitmer. “Fighting it will cause significant but temporary changes to our daily lives. By practicing social distancing and taking aggressive action now, the state is working to mitigate the spread of coronavirus so we reduce the risk that our health care system becomes overwhelmed. This is about saving lives. Michiganders are tough and we are going to get through this, but it will require everyone doing their part. That means making smart choices and not putting yourself or others at risk by going out in public unless it is absolutely necessary.”

At about 1 p.m. Monday, Whitmer announced she had signed Executive Order 2020-10 to temporarily expand eligibility for unemployment benefits. This executive order is effective immediately and until Tuesday, April 14 at 11:59 p.m. 

Under the governor’s order, unemployment benefits would be extended to: 

• Workers who have an unanticipated family care responsibility, including those who have childcare responsibilities due to school closures, or those who are forced to care for loved ones who become ill. 

• Workers who are sick, quarantined, or immunocompromised and who do not have access to paid family and medical leave or are laid off. 

• First responders in the public health community who become ill or are quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19. 

“While we work together to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, we must do everything we can to help working families,” said Whitmer. “This executive order will provide immediate relief to those who can’t go to work, and who rely on their paycheck to put food on the table for themselves and their families. I urge everyone to make smart choices at this time, and to do everything in their power to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.” 

She said the state is also seeking solutions for self-employed workers and independent contractors who traditionally do not have access to unemployment insurance. 

Access to benefits for unemployed workers will also be extended: 

• Benefits will be increased from 20 to 26 weeks. 

• The application eligibility period will be increased from 14 to 28 days. 

• The normal in-person registration and work search requirements will be suspended.  

Eligible employees should apply for unemployment benefits online at Michigan.gov/UIA  or 1-866-500-0017. 

Under the order, an employer or employing unit must not be charged for unemployment benefits if their employees become unemployed because of an executive order requiring them to close or limit operations.  

The order also expands the State’s Work Share program. Employers are encouraged to implement the program that permits employers to maintain operational productivity during declines in regular business activity instead of laying off workers.

On Friday, Whitmer also signed Executive Order 2020-5 to cancel all events over 250 people and all assemblages in shared spaces over 250 people beginning on Friday, March 13 at 5 p.m. and ending on Sunday, April 5 at 5 p.m.

Under this executive order, all events and shared-space assemblages of more than 250 people are temporarily prohibited in the state. Certain assemblages are exempt from this prohibition, such as those for the purpose of: industrial or manufacturing work, mass transit, or the purchase of groceries or consumer goods.

Additionally, Secretary of State branch offices moved to appointment only for three weeks from Monday to April 6.

The types of transactions available in-person at branches during this three-week period will be limited to the following three critical services:

• New driver’s licenses and state IDs.

• Title transfers.

• Testing for an original commercial driver’s license, chauffeur’s license, mechanic’s license, motorcycle license and recreational vehicle license.

Locally, Iosco County offices and buildings closed to the genera public Monday through April 5.

County officials said all offices will be fully staffed and remain open however, they will be closed to the public. Officials encourage anyone at risk, and those with symptoms of illness, not to attend public meetings. Persons who have any necessary business, please call that respective office and may also visit the county’s website at www.iosco.net.

In an effort to help reduce the risk of the coronavirus, the East Tawas City Hall, Library and Community Center is closed starting Monday, March 13 at noon through April 6. City offices will remain open but will be closed to the public except for scheduled meetings. Those with any questions can contact city hall at 362-6161 or by email at cityhall@easttawas.com.

The Tawas City Library also closed on Monday, March 13. Tawas City Hall remained open to the public as of Monday, March 13.

According to the Ascension St. Joseph Hospital website, visitor limitations within Ascension care settings, inpatient and outpatient, have been implemented to assist in its containment and mitigation efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. 

“These concentrated efforts are specific to the setting and will help reduce transmission of disease while directing persons to the right level of care,” according to the website.

“We encourage you to call ahead for more specific local visitor restrictions. Generally, Ascension is asking persons who have flu-like symptoms and/or cough, fever, and/or shortness of breath, runny nose/nasal congestion or sore throat to not visit.” 

Previously, school districts in Hale, Oscoda, Tawas and Whittemore-Prescott had remained open, however, each said they are taking steps to monitor and prepare for any potential COVID-19 occurrence.

“Closing our K-12 school buildings is the responsible choice that will minimize the risk of exposure for children, educators, and families and mitigate the spread of coronavirus,” said Michigan State Superintendent Michael Rice. “The Department of Education will continue to work closely with our partners in state government to help our students and educators in each school district get through this time. This is about protecting the most people in Michigan.” 

Governors across the country, including Mike DeWine (R-OH), Andy Beshear (D-KY), and Larry Hogan (R-MD), have taken similar steps to close schools and ensure the protection of children and families in their states. 

“Closing our school buildings is the smart thing and the right thing to do for the public’s health,” said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Chief Deputy for Health and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. “These actions will help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan. I will continue to work with Governor Whitmer and our four COVID-19 task forces to ensure we protect our children, our families, and our communities.” 

Additionally, on Thursday night, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and the health departments in Ingham, Kent, Montcalm, Oakland, St. Clair and Washtenaw counties announced 10 adults tested presumptive positive for COVID-19. This brings the state total of COVID-19 cases to 12.

“We continue to urge Michiganders to take precautions to prevent the spread COVID-19 in our state,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health. “We have to proactively implement community mitigation strategies that will help prevent the spread of the disease, and particularly protect our most vulnerable Michiganders.”

Clinical specimens were collected from the individuals and sent to the MDHHS Bureau of Laboratories where they tested presumptive positive for COVID-19. The specimens will be sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for confirmation testing.

On Wednesday, March 11, Whitmer recommended a stoppage of large gatherings in order to assist in preventing the spread of COVID-19. 

With the help of Tawas Area School employees and community volunteers, Tawas Area Schools is providing take home breakfasts and lunches for its students from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on March 17, March 19, March 24, March 26, March 31 and April 2. The school district will have families of its students access the high school/middle school parking lot, where school staff and volunteers will deliver packaged food to their vehicles. School officials said their efforts are to support needy families during this time when the school is closed based on the COVID-19 mandatory school closure. 

Each of the four school districts previously had letters posted on their websites to staff and families concerning COVID-19.

“We have open and effective lines of communication with our public health officials and will alert students, staff, and families if we receive direction related to COVID-19,” said Tawas Area Superintendent John Klinger. “While education is important, the health and well-being of our students and staff are far more significant.”

“In an effort to ensure early identification of any potential issues, we will be more closely monitoring our students and staff to identify any elevated trends in reports of illness,” said Hale Superintendent Robert Colby. “As always, our school works closely with public health officials and follows all of their recommendations to best ensure the safety of everyone in our school district.”

“We have taken steps to implement a process by which ill students are segregated until transportation home can be arranged for them to avoid unnecessary exposure,” said W-P Superintendent  Joseph J. Perrera. “As we continue to improve our services for ensuring student and staff safety we will keep everyone apprised of other measures that may be implemented.

“In addition, we will also be increasing access for disinfectants and sanitizers,” said Oscoda Superintendent Scott Moore. “In addition to these precautionary measures, as educators we believe that information is also key in preventing issues from arising. The following links contain good, common sense information regarding basic, individual-level actions that can be taken to reduce the risk of spreading illness of any kind to others.”

Those website links are located at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/summary.html, https://www.michigan.gov/coronavirus and https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdhhs/nCOV-2019_General_Fact_Sheet_v2-4-20_680266_7.pdf.

The superintendents also said their districts are prepared to intensify cleaning practices throughout their buildings and will follow all the directions provided by public health to prevent and limit the virus.

Each of the school districts posted best practices shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as from local health officials  to help prevent any COVID-19  occurrences. Those practices are shared in a separate story in this week’s edition.

Meanwhile, postseason events sponsored by the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) were suspended Thursday and indefinitely due to concerns related to COVID-19.

The ice hockey, girls gymnastics and Lower Peninsula boys swimming and diving finals had been scheduled for last weekend, while the girls and boys basketball tournaments are midway through earlier rounds of their playoff progressions.

“Based on the events of the last 48 hours and with things changing by the minute, we believe we have no choice but to suspend our winter tournaments immediately,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “This is a suspension until we have a better handle on the situation. The health and welfare of everyone involved is our number one priority.”

The MHSAA also has directed all member schools to suspend activities in all sports for all seasons – effective Monday, March 16 through at least Sunday, April 5 – to fall in line with Whitmer’s order that all schools close for the next three weeks in order to deter the spread of COVID-19.

Many Michigan universities and colleges have gone to online instruction only with no face-to-face contact such as live lectures. Additionally, many sports leagues and team,, professionally and at the collegiate level, have postponed or suspended their seasons due to the virus.

Additionally, Carol’s Baby Pantry in Oscoda is closed when there is no school and the AuSable Township Board of Trustees cancelled its meeting on Monday, March 16 due to a lack of business items and with a precautionary health concerns related to COVID-19. The fundraising basketball game between the Detroit Lions and the Iosco County Firefighter All-Stars, that was scheduled for Friday, March 13 at Tawas Area HIgh School was postponed and a make-up date has not yet been set.