Republicans say Gov. Whitmer starting to reopen Michigan is ‘better late than never’

Bars, restaurants, retail can partially resume in northern parts of state

In a pool photo provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, wearing a mask, addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, Mich., Friday, May 1, 2020. The governor said Michigan's stay-at-home order remains in effect despite Republicans' refusal to extend her underlying coronavirus emergency declaration, as she amended it to allow construction, real estate and outdoor work to resume next week. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP, Pool) (Uncredited)

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan Republicans have opposed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s handling of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak for weeks, and on Monday, they said her decision to partially reopen the state was “better late than never.”

READ: Everything you need to know about Gov. Whitmer reopening businesses in parts of Michigan

Whitmer announced Monday that bars, restaurants, retail and certain office jobs can open with restrictions in the Upper Peninsula and 17 counties in the northern part of Lower Michigan.

Her executive order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

Republican legislators, who sued Whitmer for extending her executive orders without their approval, released statements shortly after her announcement.

“After months of dragging her feet, Gov. Whitmer has finally decided to move forward with opening Michigan in the safe and strategic manner Speaker (Lee) Chatfield and Majority Leader (Mike) Shirkey proposed weeks ago," Michigan Republican Party Chairman Laura Cox said. "After feeling the pressure of 48 other states reopening, Gov. Whitmer rightfully concluded that the people of our state are smart enough to be trusted and she regionally reopened Michigan. While many hardworking Michiganders and small business owners would have welcomed this development weeks ago, it’s better late than never.”

Whitmer said restaurants and bars can open at 50% capacity but must keep grounds at least six feet apart. All servers have to wear masks.

“For several weeks, Senate Republicans have been fighting for a common sense, regional approach to managing the impact of COVID-19 in Michigan," Shirkey said. "We are cautiously optimistic that the governor may be coming around to what we have known for some time, that our citizens are ready and able to safely resume daily life.

MORE: Why Northern Michigan was chosen for next phase of Whitmer’s reopening plan

"We also called for transparency from the governor. Michigan residents deserve to see behind the curtain and understand how decisions impacting their lives and livelihoods are being made. We believe our citizens should have access to the same data used by the governor to make decisions about when and how regions are reopened. In the absence of transparency, the governor’s decisions seem arbitrary, at best, and fuel frustration and confusion.

“The Senate Republicans suggested changes weeks ago. We continue to be ready to partner with the governor to improve the process and deliver a smarter plan for Michigan. In the case of Gov. Whitmer, we suppose it’s better late than never."

UPDATE -- May 18, 2020: Michigan coronavirus cases up to 51,915; Death toll now at 4,915

“This is a big step, but we must all remember to continue doing our part to protect ourselves and our families from the spread of COVID-19,” Whitmer said. "It’s crucial that all businesses do everything in their power to protect their workers, customers, and their families. And as we approach Memorial Day weekend, I encourage everyone to be smart and be safe. My team and I will continue to work around the clock to protect the people of Michigan.”

Whitmer said the entire Upper Peninsula, which is designated as region eight in her “MI Safe Start” plan, is included in this order.

The other region, known as region six, is the northernmost part of the Lower Peninsula. Here are the counties included in that region:

  • Antrim
  • Alpena
  • Benzie
  • Charlevoix
  • Cheboygan
  • Crawford
  • Emmet
  • Grand Traverse
  • Kalkaska
  • Leelanau
  • Manistee
  • Missaukee
  • Montmorency
  • Otsego
  • Presque Isle
  • Roscommon
  • Wexford

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the Chief Deputy for Health at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the state’s chief medical executive, said these locations were chosen because of their recent trends.

“The data shows that these regions in Michigan are seeing consistent encouraging trends when it comes to the number of cases, deaths, and the percent of tests that are positive for COVID-19,” Khaldun said. “It’s important to note that these businesses must take special precautions to protect Michiganders. I also encourage everyone to continue to wear a mask in public, maintain a six-foot distance from others, and to remain vigilant in washing their hands often. This will help prevent a second surge in cases in our state.”

Only office workers whose jobs cannot be done remotely can return to work, Whitmer said.

Retail business will also be allowed to reopen, but companies must provide personal protective equipment to workers, keep everyone six feet apart and ensure employees understand how to safely maneuver in this environment.

Cities, villages and townships can choose to enforce more cautious rules if they wish. They can even limit bars and restaurants to outdoor seating, if they choose.

More on safety protocols

All businesses that reopen have to adopt specific safety measures outlined in Whitmer’s executive order.

Here are some of those measures:

  • Provide COVID-19 training to workers that covers, at a minimum, workplace infection-control practices, the proper use of PPE, steps workers must take to notify the business or operation of any symptoms of COVID-19 or a suspected or confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19, and how to report unsafe working conditions.
  • Restaurants and bars will also have to limit capacity to 50% of their normal seating.
  • Restaurants and bars must keep groups at least six feet from one another.
  • Businesses must require workers to wear face coverings.
  • Businesses must follow rigorous disinfection protocols.

“Because we continue to fight this virus, nobody in Michigan should feel unsafe when they go back to work,” Whitmer said. “Nobody should be worried about their family member or loved one while they’re at work. As we move forward, I’m going to continue to closely monitor the data and work with my partners in business and labor to ensure the safety of our workforce.”

She said businesses that resume in-person work must develop a COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan and submit that to the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity by June 1. Businesses need to make these plans ready and available for their workers so they can review them and have confidence in their workplace safety, Whitmer said.

“Going to work is going to feel different for a little while,” Whitmer said. “These are big changes, and we’re all adapting to them, but they’re absolutely necessary for the continued protection of our families, and they’re crucial as we continue to face (difficulties) in sectors of our economy, in regions across Michigan, to help ensure that this process runs smoothly.”

Whitmer also signed an executive directive calling for the appointment of a Director of COVID-19 Worker Safety in the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

Each department and agency in the state government that’s responsible for enforcing workplace health and safety standards will monitor workplaces to make sure they’re in compliance with the rules, Whitmer said. Departments will ensure businesses have all the information they need so that they can protect their employees, and they’ll work around the clock to ensure that everyone is following the rules, according to the governor.

“These rules are not optional," Whitmer said. "They will be enforced businesses that begin to operate in again, need to take these steps to protect their workers, their clients and their families. Everyone returning to work deserves peace of mind that their that their employers are doing everything in their power to protect them.”

State leaders weigh in

Here are some of the other reactions to Whitmer’s decision to partially reopen the northern section of the state.

Justin Winslow, President and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association:

We are thankful to Gov. Whitmer as today marks an important first step of reintegrating restaurants into the fabric of our daily lives. Restaurants in the U.P. and northern Michigan understand that with their opportunity comes an extraordinary responsibility to operate in a manner that ensures the safety of their guests and their employees. I believe they are up to the challenge.”

Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers:

Like Gov. Whitmer, mayors in Michigan support the well-being of all our citizens. All regions of Michigan have been affected by COVID-19, and Up North, we want to support the governor by cautiously opening up some of our economy resources. However, in doing so, we must be mindful that wearing masks and continuing to practice social distancing is a must to make this work. Stopping the spread of this virus is still key and if we can’t, then we will have to close it down again.”

Marquette Mayor Jenna Smith:

I support the shift to making decisions on a regional level, when possible. As restrictions are slowly eased, it will be important for us to remain vigilant to stop the spread of the virus.”

Bill Hallan, President and CEO of Michigan Retailers Association:

"This is a great first step. We appreciate that the governor has used a regional approach, as we suggested, to open retail in some areas of the state before the Memorial Day weekend. This is a good step, but many retailers who aren’t yet allowed to open are struggling to stay in business.

“Employers want to reopen safely and responsibly and are already prepared to follow the worker safety requirements that the governor outlined. We strongly hope retailers in southern and mid-Michigan can reopen soon, and we’ll continue working with the Governor’s office to make that happen.”

Where Michigan stands

Whitmer’s current state of emergency and stay-at-home order are both in effect until May 28.

Michiganders have taken to the Capitol Building for three major protests in the past month, most recently on Thursday.

READ: Protesters rally against Michigan stay-at-home order: ‘She’s treating us like we’re small children’

Despite the lawsuits and protests, Whitmer has continued to take a cautious approach to reopening Michigan. While the Big Three automakers reopened Monday and other services, such as landscaping and construction, have been methodically resumed, Whitmer said her priority is safety.

“I know many people in our state are feeling frustrated,” Whitmer said. “Some are scared. Some are angry. That’s understandable, but now is not a time for division for hatred, certainly not a time for violence. Now is a time for us to pull together. Now is a time for unity.”

Whitmer announced last week that gatherings of up to 10 people could possibly be allowed by May 28, when the current stay-at-home order expires.

But during Friday’s briefing, she said Michigan isn’t yet ready to enter the fourth stage of her six-step reopening plan.

“I’ve been thinking about, ‘How can we drive home the story that is happening here, the stories that are not going to be called 5,000 lost lives?’” Whitmer said. “I want you to imagine as though you are standing on the stage of the Fox Theater in Detroit, which holds over 5,000 people. You look at that stage, and you know that nearly every empty chair represents a lost loved one, someone here in Michigan, someone with a story, someone with children or parents, someone with colleagues.

“These are people that were part of the fabric of our state. It’s so easy to look past this loss if it hasn’t hit close to home. It’s crucial for us to remember the families across Michigan who are still dealing with unbearable, unthinkable loss.”

About the Author:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.