Return of in-person work crucial to Michigan's economic ecosystem, some say

NOW: Return of in-person work crucial to Michigan’s economic ecosystem, some say

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan has reached the first milestone in its Vacc to Normal plan — four goals the state must achieve in its number of vaccinations to fully re-open.

The first being 55 percent of residents immunized, allowing for the return of in-person work, and the lack of people in offices on a day-to-day basis hasn’t just hurt the businesses they work in.

“Without people working down in the area, I don’t think we’ve had quite the traffic we normally would,” said Richard Gresens, co-owner of Happy Poochie Eatery.

Happy Poochie in Benton Harbor had big plans for their grand opening last summer – which had to be put on hold because of the pandemic – with them finally getting to open just five months ago.

But, one of their biggest draws to a spot on Main Street has been missing the entire time. 

“Its proximity to a lot of businesses in the area, Whirlpool is very close by, this is easy access for them so we like being on the main road and figured we’d have an instant business with that,” said Gresens.

That incentive for prospective businesses, the Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber says, is part of the ecosystem in-person work creates in communities. 

“Businesses rely on office work for lunches, dinners and meetings, so the last year has been particularly devastating,” said Arthur Havlicek, President & CEO of the Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber.

But not all the buildings on Benton Harbor’s Main Street will be full of workers once again in two weeks, Whirlpool Corporation telling ABC57 they don’t plan to have staff fully return until fall:

"We are encouraged by the news this week from Governor Gretchen Whitmer's office that we have reached a 55 percent vaccination rate in the state of Michigan, and if COVID case rates meet the State's threshold, we may start returning to work 14 days from that milestone. We are keeping abreast of the current guidelines at the local, county, state and federal levels to determine how to have our employee population re-enter the workplace in the safest manner, as there are still COVID-19 safety guidelines and restrictions in place such as masks, social distancing, and capacity limits.This will not be a return to 'normal' as we knew it before the pandemic, but instead a return to the 'new normal' for everyone. As the percentage of vaccinations continues to increase, fully-vaccinated employees will have greater access to the workplace starting in June, while preparing for a larger return to our offices and facilities in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph after the Labor Day Holiday. As always, the safety and well-being of our employees is of the utmost importance during this transition, and many of our employees are looking forward to reconnecting with one another after so many months of working virtually." – Whirlpool Corporation

Still, economic development agencies say this marks the most significant step so far in Michigan’s reopening. 

“It’s going to trickle down and that helps these hospitality businesses recover in a way they have not yet been able to do,” said Havlicek.

Although Michigan announced it reached the 55 percent milestone, it will still be two more weeks until the remote work requirement is lifted on May 24.

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