LANSING, Mich. – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said her use of emergency powers to manage the pandemic is not unique and she worries that efforts to take away her unilateral authority, if successful, could lead coronavirus cases to spike to dangerous levels in Michigan.
The Democrat locked down the state in the spring, when the deadly virus hit and threatened to overwhelm hospitals, but she has since reopened schools and much of the economy — with restrictions on gathering sizes and businesses such as restaurants. Throughout the summer, Michigan has fared better with COVID-19 than many other states after it was initially a hot spot nationally.
Whitmer credited residents for taking the virus seriously and doing “what they needed to do" in a state where the coronavirus has contributed to nearly 7,000 deaths. "But the thing that keeps me up at night is the fact that all of this sacrifice that we’ve made and the work that we’ve done could just evaporate if we drop our guard, if we stop masking up,” she told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Michigan's per-capita rate of new cases in the past two weeks ranks 13th-lowest among states, according to an AP analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University. The COVID Tracking Project, which the AP uses to track testing, says the state's seven-day average positivity rate is 11th-lowest. About 2.4% of those tested are getting positive results.
Whitmer has said Michigan's economy is operating at 87% of what it was since March, citing figures from Moody’s Analytics and CNN. The 8.7% unemployment rate, unchanged in August, was double what it was before the pandemic.
Republican lawmakers are in court challenging the governor's ability to continually extend the state of the emergency — the underpinning of her orders — without their approval. A group, Unlock Michigan, is nearly done collecting signatures for a veto-proof ballot initiative that would enable the GOP-controlled Legislature to repeal a 1945 law that gives Whitmer her power to act on her own.
A 1976 law, which requires legislative approval to lengthen an emergency, would remain intact.
“If we become the one state in the nation that doesn't have a state of emergency and we drop everything, we could see our numbers climb quickly and get right back into a danger zone,” she said. There is a tendency to think Michigan is unique, she said, but “we're doing what every other state is doing to keep people safe."
Unlock Michigan spokesman Fred Wszolek said the governor's contention is “nonsensical, unless you assume that the governor would be completely unable to persuade the Legislature to continue a single one of her pandemic policies. Our proposal doesn’t revoke any of her policies; we simply revoke her authority to impose her policies by decree, bypassing the Legislature."
Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey have questioned the reasoning behind Whitmer's orders and have said no businesses, including movie theaters, should still be closed.
The confrontation comes at what Whitmer's top aides said is a serious juncture. Her chief legal counsel, Mark Totten, pointed to residents' increased contact with others as she has slowly loosened her “safe start” order over several months. Some universities and colleges have seen hundreds of cases since starting classes. K-12 schooling is underway.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, said she was “very concerned” about the upcoming flu season, a threat that was avoided last winter due to when COVID-19 arrived. She urged everyone to get vaccinated.
Whitmer, whose handling of the pandemic is supported in polling, has been saying that the emergency will not last forever. She said the world is on the “cusp” of a vaccine and therapeutics are being developed to treat COVID-19.
“All of these factors will go into when it's safe to exit the state of emergency. We really do believe that it is a matter of months,” she said.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that a vaccine could start going to health care workers and other high-risk people perhaps in January or even late this year - if one is approved — but it is unlikely to be available more broadly before late spring or summer.
“There will be time between when the vaccine is approved and making sure that it's actually distributed so it (has) an impact on the spread of the disease in the state,” Khaldun said.
Totten cautioned that Michigan “is not an island,” saying every state surrounding it currently has higher case rates. He cited COVID-19's disproportionate impact on people of color and seniors.
“We're just incredibly mindful of the threat to life that this poses," he said, “if we're not doing everything we can to hold this back.”