Thanksgiving looms large over Michigan as COVID-19's worst phase amplifies

Amid Michigan's worst stage of the coronavirus to date, Thanksgiving now looms as a source of potential exposure that could ripple across the state.

Even with restrictions now limiting businesses and crowds, the annual holiday that thrives on families coming together now poses a threat to residents around Michigan.

With small and medium-sized gatherings increasingly becoming a primary source of new infections, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer implored residents to stay home on Nov. 26. Its advice her and six other governors authored in a Washington Post editorial and it's advice she offered during her last press conference before Thanksgiving.

"We're preserving future holiday gatherings," she said during a Thursday press conference.

Currently, residents are allowed to celebrate Thanksgiving with one other household they do not live with. But that doesn't mean health experts are encouraging any behavior of the kind.

Currently, hospitals in Michigan are at 79% capacity, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said. Michigan also has the fourth-highest number of hospitalized residents in the country, behind only Texas, Illinois, and California.

Also of concern is the subsequent shopping bonanza that follows Thanksgiving, when thousands of people congregate in malls for Black Friday. 

There are restrictions on how many people are allowed in stores in malls and state law requires people to wear a mask and socially distance when in publically enclosed spaces.

However, the timing of the unofficial holiday for buying things is somewhat serendipitous, something that local store owners and managers hope residents capitalize on to help keep businesses afloat during the pandemic.

While crowding malls isn't recommended, state leaders encourage people to buy local when they begin holiday shopping. 

"This is one part of our economy we have kept open because we think people can stay safe," said Whitmer.

Whitmer's newest rules are the strictest the state has mandated since the spring when COVID-19 cases were being reported at an unmitigated rate and deaths were climbing to almost 200.

Now, the state finds itself in a similar situation but with a far higher number of infections. While the state is testing at its highest rate to date, disease experts have also identified the pandemic is spreading across the state and not in just a few hot spots.

The restrictions are expected to last for three weeks.

On Wednesday, the state reported 5,772 new cases and 62 more deaths linked to the virus.

Last week, hospital CEOs warned they were nearing capacity for a second time as staff resources were becoming more strained and available beds were filling up.

Shortly after, Whitmer announced new restrictions over the weekend.

"We cannot control the fact we're seeing a surge in cases, we can control how we combat our common enemy," said Whitmer.

While the new rules impacted a wide range of professions, livelihoods, and amenities, they were also more specific in how they addressed them.

RELATED: "It's going to be a tough winter," Whitmer enacts new restrictions for 3 weeks in Michigan

In schools, only high school students are affected because COVID-19 data showed outbreaks were increasingly common among older students. In work office settings, the governor's orders only impacted jobs that could be done at home. For Thanksgiving, it would be almost impossible to enforce having nobody travel - which is why gatherings on the holiday are limited to two households and 10 people.

At least one lawsuit has been filed in response to the new rules. The restaurant association has sued the health department over rules that suspend in-person service at eateries and bars. The argument is because the percentage of outbreaks from restaurants being tracked by health officials make up only 4% of Michigan's total outbreaks statewide.

GOP officials have also criticized the decision, with one state lawmaker filing articles of impeachment against the governor.