Magazine May 18, 2020, Issue

Michigan’s COVID Confusion

A sign placed outside a bowling alley in Hillsdale, Mich. (Brendan Miller)
No seeds for you!

This spring Damon Glei ran a renegade garden center. Under the rules of Michigan’s COVID-19 lockdown, his business, Glei’s Orchards and Greenhouses, should have been shuttered for most of April. Yet he kept it open, selling trowels, gardening gloves, and flats of vegetable seedlings. “You have to eat,” he says. “If you grow your own food, you have to start now. We will sell you everything you need.”

This act of civil disobedience could have led to fines and even prison time for Glei. As Americans bristle at the stay-at-home orders that have thrown tens of millions of people out of work, actions like his could become increasingly familiar. Michigan is on the leading edge of the debate over how to balance public health with commercial and personal activity during a pandemic. In March and April, the coronavirus took lethal hold of Detroit and nearby counties, as only New York and New Jersey surpassed Michigan in the number of deaths. On April 9, Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer issued some of the nation’s most stringent and confusing orders. On April 24, she extended her stay-at-home order to May 15 and relaxed some of her previous restrictions, while also warning that “we have to be nimble enough to go backward.” Her decrees have included prohibitions, like those in other states, on eat-in restaurants and hair and nail salons, but also more aggressive bans on travel, boating, and construction.

Whitmer has called her decisions “gut-wrenching,” and surely they have been. Nobody knows for sure how to save the most lives while doing the least harm to the economy. From the start, however, Michiganders had trouble making sense of her rules. The purchase of scratch-off lottery tickets? Legal. Paint from Home Depot? Banned. Recreational weed? Approved. Elective surgery? Postpone it, even though hospitals are operating below capacity and laying off thousands. What about abortion? That’s perfectly okay, Whitmer explained in a podcast interview, because it’s “life-sustaining.”

In March, shortly after Whitmer issued the first executive order outlawing a wide range of economic activity but with a set of exceptions, Goeff Hansen of the Michigan Greenhouse Growers Council inquired about the permissibility of plant sales. For garden centers, spring is the Christmas season: an intense period of six or eight weeks that can make or break an entire year. They need to sell their Easter lilies in a flash, move mountains of mulch, and hire enough people to handle a crush of green-thumb customers in May. Michigan’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development replied with a clear answer: no plant sales. Hansen conveyed the bad news to Michigan’s nurseries. Most of them closed. As he put it in an interview, “If you remain open, you do it at your own risk.”

Glei decided to take that risk, in part because he thought the vague wording of the executive order, with its exemptions for agriculture and food sales, permitted him to stay in business. He also saw that big-box stores were continuing to sell the same products he had on his own shelves. On April 9, however, Whitmer imposed limits on large retailers: They had to quit selling not just plants but also carpets, flooring, furniture, and paint. This led to the odd spectacle of Walmart stores’ cordoning off certain aisles and even parts of aisles while keeping others open. How this protected public health is anyone’s guess — but it certainly made it harder to find materials for repainting the family room at what might otherwise have been an ideal moment for it. Glei still lacked clear guidance: His trade association said the state had banned all plant sales, but then Whitmer ordered only large stores to quit selling them.

The state government couldn’t get its story straight in other areas either. On April 3, a spokesman for the Michigan State Police told the Detroit News that the governor’s order forbade recreational boating on waterways. A few hours later, the Department of Natural Resources said that this was wrong: People could use the waterways as long as boats carried only the members of a single household. On April 9, however, the governor banned motorboats, which meant that 54-foot sailboats were okay but fishing boats with trolling motors were not. Again, the rationale was unclear. Meanwhile, marinas couldn’t take pontoons out of storage and deliver them to owners, even though these activities can occur at a safe social distance.

Todd Ritchey, the owner of White’s Welding, chose to shut down in March. Whitmer’s order had blocked him from even the simplest jobs, such as repairing a broken metal gate. “I was going to stay open, but when people stayed at home, business dropped off.” He thinks closing his shop may have been the right call for the sake of safety, but he says that he and a lot of others need to get back to work soon: “If you make a living at something, then it’s essential. I don’t care if you sell butterfly magnets.”

Landscapers and lawn crews were idled, too, at a time when they should have been revving up. “Normally we’d be cleaning up yards, removing sticks and leaves, and making our first cuts,” says Spike Lewis of TLC Lawn Care. Lewis, who works by himself, also employs a couple of mowers who operate as a two-man team. They rarely see customers when they work. Lewis bills by mail. “I understand being safe, but I don’t understand why we can’t be out there. Why does she have to shut us down?”

He wasn’t alone in wondering. The mayor of Warren, Jim Fouts, said that he wouldn’t enforce the lawn-care ban on behalf of senior citizens who need the service. “I called the governor’s office last week, and I thought I made a pretty good argument,” he told the Detroit News. “I said, ‘If you do this, we’ll end up with weeds instead of grass, and tall weeds will bring rats and mice.’ I told them it’s a bad idea and asked them to rethink the policy.” Even sheriffs, who in Michigan are elected, have their doubts. On April 15, sheriffs in four counties issued a joint press release accusing Whitmer of “overstepping her executive authority” and stating, “We will not have strict enforcement of these orders.” Other sheriffs probably have felt the same way but have avoided making public statements.

Whitmer’s rules permit “outdoor physical activity,” which can include walking, running, hiking, and biking. Before April 24, however, they didn’t include golfing, on the grounds that it would threaten course employees. Teed-off golfers who complained about the ban prompted Democratic attorney general Dana Nessel to fire back with a super-woke tweet: “I just can’t hear about one more black health care worker, police officer or bus driver [dying] while getting a barrage of complaints from white folks outraged because they can’t go golfing.” What about walking the fairways? “If they want to walk the course, I suppose they can but with no golf clubs in their hands and no balls,” a spokeswoman for Nessel told the Lansing State Journal. “Long distance travel” also was forbidden unless it met a “critical” need, and traveling between two homes was outright banned, which meant that Michiganders couldn’t move between their primary residences and the cabins that many of them own, especially in the northern part of the state. Weirdly, people who live in other states but own property in Michigan have been welcome the whole time.

Despite the lifting of some limits on April 24, many kinds of work remain illegal, such as commercial construction and nonemergency home repairs. Localities have interpreted Whitmer’s rules in various ways. If a new house lacks a roof, for example, should the builder be allowed to finish the job, or does he have to make do with a tarp? Matthew Rizik faces exactly this problem in Birmingham: He says the city won’t let him put a roof on the house he’s building. “Rain is getting through and I’m worried about water damage,” he says, so now he’s suing. Another type of banned activity is recreational camping. “We’ve refunded $20,000 in reservations,” says Michelle Wilcox, who with her husband owns Gateway Park Campground, which mostly rents sites to families with RVs. “We can operate safely, following CDC guidelines,” says Wilcox. “I just wish the governor would let us run our business.”

Although Whitmer’s rules have sparked protests — a rally in Lansing on April 15 drew national attention — polls suggest that most Michiganders approve of her performance. Six months ago, that wasn’t true: Following a clash with legislators of both parties last year over her failed proposal to increase gas taxes by 45 cents per gallon, her approval rating among likely voters dropped to 42 percent, according to the Marketing Resource Group. Now it appears to have bounced back: In a poll of residents released on April 20 by the Detroit Regional Chamber, 57 percent approved of her handling of the coronavirus crisis and 37 percent disapproved. This may be an expression of the common impulse to rally around a leader during a crisis, and probably shouldn’t be taken as widespread support for everything she’s done — but that positive rating has helped vault her into the discussion over whom Joe Biden should pick as a running mate. By all accounts, Whitmer is on the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s short list. A Biden-Whitmer ticket might help Democrats avoid the defeat they suffered in Michigan in 2016, when President Trump won the state by fewer than 11,000 votes.

Long before November, of course, comes May — the make-or-break month for greenhouses, nurseries, and garden centers. On April 20, the Michigan Greenhouse Growers Council sent a letter to Whitmer, describing what its members would do if they could reopen: limit the number of customers and require them to practice social distancing, make available curbside pickup and delivery, and sanitize their premises. That’s only a portion of what Glei was doing throughout April at his store, where he created a safe space of coronavirus prevention by setting up a one-way entrance and exit, putting out a basket of face masks for customers who didn’t already have them, and suspending plexiglass screens from the ceiling in front of checkout counters to separate shoppers and cashiers. At least now his one-time rogue operation is in the clear.

Shortly after the anti-lockdown demonstration in Lansing, Whitmer complained about Michiganders who objected to aspects of her policy. “In World War II, there weren’t people lining up at the capitol to protest the fact that they had to drop everything they were doing and build planes or tanks or to ration food,” she said. “They rolled up their sleeves and they got to work.”

She didn’t seem to realize that getting to work is exactly what her critics have wanted to do.

This article appears as “COVID Confusion in Michigan” in the May 18, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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