Health Care

Gretchen Whitmer Resists Biden Administration on Coronavirus Lockdowns

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer addresses the media, May 20, 2020. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)
Facing pressure from her political ally, Michigan’s governor is not caving to calls to reimpose strict lockdowns . . . for now. 

After nearly a year of wishing Governor Gretchen Whitmer would release her grip on Michigan, many of us in the Great Lakes State are pleased it appears she’s now open to doing so.

Despite still having some of the tightest COVID restrictions in the country — including a mask mandate, limited restaurant capacity, prohibitions on office work, and COVID testing of student athletes — Michigan is experiencing a fourth wave of COVID-19 and is leading the nation in a coronavirus resurgence. Hospitals are again warning of nearing capacity.

Whitmer’s go-to response during COVID surges in the past twelve months has been to lock down the state through executive and epidemic orders. She has resisted that instinct this time — so far anyway. Yet increasing pressure from the federal government and state health officials to impose more restrictions could give the governor cover to change her mind.

For now, Whitmer is conveying a message that Michigan residents simply need to follow rules already in place, such as wearing masks, and to get vaccinated. The Republican-controlled legislature — which has been sidelined the past year by the Democratic governor — for months has called on Whitmer to ease restrictions and instead trust citizens to take responsibility for their health decisions.

It’s unclear what’s led to the governor’s change of heart, apart from falling poll numbers. Whitmer’s resistance now also makes it harder for her administration to justify former shutdowns in the face of similar COVID numbers.

“Instead of mandating that we’re closing things down, we are encouraging people to do what we know works,” Whitmer said during a recent press conference. “That’s the most important thing that we can do. It’s not a policy problem. It’s a variant and compliance problem.”

Compliance is becoming an issue, even for the governor’s closest advisers. Whitmer found herself in the awkward position this week of defending two of her top aides, including Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Elizabeth Hertel, who is setting the current COVID rules. Hertel and Tricia Foster, Whitmer’s chief operating officer overseeing the vaccine rollout, defied the governor’s strong recommendations to avoid spring-break travel and headed to beaches in Alabama and Florida, respectively.

State legislative leaders maintain that a hands-off approach is the way to go at this point. Michigan’s senate majority leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican, was pleased to hear the different tone from the governor. On Twitter, he applauded Whitmer “for resisting the tremendous pressure to lock our state down and trusting Michiganders to do the right thing.”

Rather than turn to lockdowns, Whitmer has called on President Joe Biden and his administration to send Michigan more vaccines to help deal with the COVID surge. Whitmer often calls Biden her “friend,” and touts the good things he’s done so far as president — a very different approach from that she took with former President Donald Trump, with whom she had frequent public spats.

Whitmer and Biden do have a history. Whitmer was a top contender to be Biden’s running mate. She also served on his inauguration committee and was a co-chair of his campaign.

Yet Biden hasn’t acquiesced to Whitmer’s vaccine request, saying he doesn’t want to treat one state more favorably than another.

Instead, public-health experts such as CDC director Rochelle Walensky are calling on Whitmer to impose new restrictions, such as shutting down indoor dining and putting new limits on youth sports. Walensky says vaccines alone aren’t likely to solve the current crisis.

“The answer to that is to really close things down, to go back to our basics, to go back to where we were last spring, last summer, and to shut things down — to flatten the curve, to decrease contact with one another,” Walensky said in a press briefing.

Earlier this month, Whitmer “urged,” rather than ordered, high schools to shut down and asked residents to avoid restaurants for two weeks.

It’s not as if the governor is doing nothing. Some believe she’s still doing too much. Restaurants remain limited to 50-percent capacity for indoor dining. In addition, some of the state’s top business leaders, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, were displeased this week when Whitmer signed off on a six-month continuation of emergency rules that ban the reopening of many offices, even if employers have put safety measures in place.

“Whitmer’s restrictions are making it extremely difficult for businesses to remain competitive versus other states where employees can safely work together to innovate in response to myriad challenges created by the pandemic,” the business groups said in a statement. “Additionally, Michigan’s downtowns and municipal governments are taking a beating as Whitmer’s rules virtually eliminate millions in economic activity that would otherwise take place if office workers were present.”

Other business owners fear what could happen if the governor once again shuts down the state, given the devastating impact past lockdowns have had on employers and employees. A new report from an economist at the University of Michigan-Flint found that Michigan’s “Pause to Save Lives” in November cost at least 64,000 jobs. During the state’s second lockdown, restaurants were closed for indoor dining through February 1, and high schools, movie theaters, and bowling alleys also faced weeks of closures.

Additional restrictions at this point would only be harmful to the state’s economy and schoolchildren, who’ve suffered enough disruptions this past year. Whitmer is right to focus on vaccinations and personal responsibility going forward.

There are thousands of Michigan residents hoping she doesn’t change her mind.

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