May 21, 2020 / 3:58 PM / 11 days ago

UPDATE 1-Michigan Governor Whitmer further opens state economy ahead of Trump visit

(Adds details, quotes)

By Michael Martina and Ben Klayman

DETROIT, May 21 (Reuters) - Michigan's governor announced more steps to re-open the state's economy on Thursday, offering timelines for the resumption of some businesses and allowing some social gatherings as long as guidelines to curb the spread of the coronavirus are observed.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer made the announcement ahead of a trip by President Donald Trump to a Ford Motor Co plant in Michigan making ventilators for patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

In a news briefing on Thursday morning, Whitmer said effective immediately people could meet in groups of up to 10, so long as they observed social distancing restrictions.

Retail stores and auto showrooms can resume operations by appointment beginning on May 26, while increased veterinarian, dental, and medical services will be allowed starting May 29.

"We've taken significant steps forward to re-engage our economy safely and responsibly over the past few weeks. Now we are going to take some time to ensure that these new measures are working," Whitmer said.

She said that she would likely announce another short-term extension of her broader stay-at-home order, which is set to run through May 28.

The move follows the announcement on Monday of a partial reopening in dozens of northern counties starting Friday in an acknowledgement that the outbreak has had less impact on those areas.

Trump, a Republican who is basing his re-election bid in part on a strong economy, has been critical of Whitmer and other Democratic governors over the pace of their re-openings.

Michigan is one of the states harder hit by the virus and has had some of the most restrictive stay-at-home orders in the country.

While polls show she remains popular in Michigan, Whitmer has faced mainstream backlash against the orders, with a growing number of local officials and business leaders arguing the restrictions have outlived their usefulness.

In April, hundreds of protesters, some armed, gathered at the state Capitol in Lansing to demonstrate against the orders.

On Wednesday, Trump threatened to withhold funding from Michigan over its plan for expanded mail-in voting, saying without evidence it could lead to voter fraud. He seemed to back away from the threat later.

Trump won Michigan narrowly in 2016, and it is expected to be a battleground state again in November.

Whitmer is frequently cited as a potential running mate for the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. (Reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Klayman Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Sonya Hepinstall)

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