DETROIT – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer held a briefing Tuesday to officially lift the state’s COVID restrictions and fully reopen for the first time in about 15 months.
Here are our takeaways from the briefing.
“We are now dropping the (epidemic) orders,” Whitmer said. “Effective today, there is no more mask or gathering order. Effective today, there are no more capacity limits -- indoors or outdoors. Effective today, our Pure Michigan summer is back, and we can realize it.”
Whitmer’s comments were greeted by cheers from the small crowd gathered on Belle Isle. The tone of the briefing was, unsurprisingly, much different that most others throughout the pandemic. At times, it was a celebration.
Whitmer called it a “momentous moment.”
“It has been a tough, awfully hard year for all of us,” she said.
The governor said “grueling” is a perfect word for the past 15 months.
“This pandemic was relentless, and exposed and exacerbated so many underlying challenges that were there before the pandemic and will continue to be there after the pandemic,” Whitmer said.
“But let’s take this moment and celebrate the end of the epidemic orders, the opening of a Pure Michigan summer and the opportunity that lies ahead as we gin this economy back up.”
Power to impose future restrictions
Even though the current epidemic orders are being lifted, Whitmer said she believes the governor of Michigan should retain the power to take action in the future.
“I’ve told the Legislature I’m willing to have all sorts of conversations about improvements we can make to epidemic orders in the future,” Whitmer said. “It will probably never, ever, never have to be used again under my watch -- and I hope no governor in the short-term will ever have to even visit these powers.
“But if they do, they’re going to need to act swiftly to save lives, just as we did, and that’s why I’m going to make sure that governors going forward will have the ability to take action to save people’s lives.
“There’ll be a Republican governor in the future. There’ll be a Democratic governor in the future. Every governor before me had these abilities to take action if we needed to. Everyone after me should, as well, because the people of Michigan need their chief executive to act when their lives are on the line.”
Rewards for frontline workers
Whitmer spoke about rewarding the people who worked throughout the pandemic and helped Michigan get through the last 15 months.
“It was thousands of essential workers that stayed on the front line,” Whitmer said. “We’ve got to more than just thank our essential workers.”
Last year, Michigan introduced the Futures For Frontliners program that offered tuition-free college to those who provided essential, frontline services during the pandemic. Whitmer said 85,000 have already been accepted, and more than 15,000 are currently enrolled in classes.
“Today, I’m proposing that we use $100 million, which is a fraction of the billions that the Biden Administration has sent to Michigan, to fully fund Futures For Frontliners,” Whitmer said.
She said the money would fully fund two years of college for the more than 15,000 recipients who are already taking classes and allow Michigan to expand the program to cover those who are unemployed because of the winter COVID surge.
“Every day throughout this pandemic, our frontline workers woke up, they put on their masks, they got to work on behalf of their fellow Michiganders,” Whitmer said. “They saved and contributed to the saving of countless lives in our state. So it’s not just gratitude -- it’s opportunity that we want to create.”
The governor also reiterated her support for “Hero Pay” in Michigan. On Thursday (June 17), Whitmer backed a one-time payment for essential employees who worked through the pandemic.
“A one-time dispersement of Hero Pay would honor essential workers who selflessly stayed and put themselves at risk to help others,” Whitmer said.
She said the one-time payment would go a long way toward acknowledging the sacrifice Michigan essential workers made in the last year.
Spending $3.5 billion surplus
According to Whitmer, Michigan has a $3.5 billion surplus to spend as the state emerges from the pandemic.
She said she wants jobs that offer higher wages to attract applicants, small business capital to ramp up hiring and boost investment and make childcare more affordable.
“To address these changes, we’ve introduced the economic jumpstart plan,” Whitmer said. “This is a plan to boost wages to at least $15 per hour by giving businesses grants to cover the difference between the wage they pay and $15 for the next three months. This is an investment of $1.4 billion, in addition, and childcare -- so to boost this industry so that we can pay providers and childcare professionals more, make 150,000 more kids in our state eligible for no-cost or low-cost childcare and give all student-parents enrolled in Reconnect or Futures For Frontliners access to free or reduced-cost childcare.”
Grants of up to $20,000 will be available for Michigan small businesses for rent, taxes, payroll, mortgage or operating expenses.
As part of her plan to spend the state’s surplus and help Michigan emerge stronger from the pandemic, Whitmer said she’s announcing the “back-to-work incentive.”
Under this incentive, eligible laid-off employees can earn $300 per week in addition to their salary.
“This is an incentive to draw down these federal dollars and use it for people who get back into the workforce,” Whitmer said. “We should expand this so it’s not just people returning to the job they had pre-pandemic, but getting into any job. We need the legislature to help us on that front.”
The governor said people have been laid off or needed to leave their jobs to take care of children. She believes people have been through an incredible amount of stress while unemployed.
“The fact of the matter is, so long as we’ve got lack of access to childcare, that’s a complete barrier for people getting back to work,” Whitmer said. “So long as people are worried about their health and safety, they’re going to have a lot of misgivings about getting back into work.
“What we wanted to do was not say we’re going to penalize you for going back to work, but we’re going to support you, and you can still draw down this $300, and you can use it as an incentive in addition to your paycheck.”
Whitmer said “to wage the class warfare” on people who are on the fringes and trying to get by is wrong, and they should not be penalized.
Khaldun updates COVID metrics
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, received applause from those in attendance when she stepped up to the podium.
“The past 15 months of fighting this pandemic has been grueling, and certainly something that I never imagined that I would be doing, and I think none of us could have ever imagined that we would have to experience,” Khaldun said. “Over 893,000 Michiganders have been infected by this terrible virus, and over 19,000 Michiganders have lost their lives.”
Khaldun said the virus has not spared “anyone of any age” and has devastated communities of color.
“But because of the work of all of us -- of people all across the state -- we are now at the lowest case rate that we have seen since this pandemic started,” Khaldun said. “Under 18 cases per million people. Our percent positivity is under 2%, and we’ve seen about 9 million doses of the safe and effective vaccines in arms across the state.”
Rescinding orders, but staying vigilant
Khaldun said this pandemic taught us the importance of epidemiology, especially in terms of hand washing, mask wearing and getting vaccinated.
“Michiganders have shown up,” Khaldun said. “You have shown grit. That is why we’re able to stand here today and rescind our broad epidemic orders. So I’m pleased with how far we’ve come.
“For those of you who are vaccinated, your risk of getting the virus is very low, and I’m so pleased to see all of us here, many of us without masks on because we are confident. We are comfortable because we are outside, we are vaccinated and we are protected.”
Khaldun said Michigan’s work isn’t completely over. She said while the metrics are low, the pandemic hasn’t ended.
“There are still many people who have not been vaccinated, and we have not yet achieved herd immunity,” Khaldun said.
She said social distancing and mask wearing is still recommended for people who haven’t gotten vaccinated.
One of the greatest remaining concerns for experts is the possibility of COVID variants causing another spike in cases and deaths.
The mutation (B.1.617.2) was first detected in India, and scientists are still studying it.
“We still have the more easily transmitted variants across the United States and here in Michigan,” Khaldun said. “We’ve identified the new delta variant here in the state, and this variant is even more easily transmitted than the alpha variant.”
Khaldun said it’s possible the delta variant could potentially cause more severe cases of COVID-19 and be unaffected by monoclonal antibodies.
The governor said she’s pleased with Michigan’s vaccination numbers, but would still love to see the state get to her original goal of at least 70% of residents 16 and up vaccinated.
“We’re doing a lot of work to meet people where they are working, to get right into neighborhoods, partnering with churches, for instance,” Whitmer said. “There’s a lot of work on that front that is happening.”
Right now, about 61% of Michiganders 16 and up have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to Khaldun.
Whitmer said vaccinations are even more important as the delta variant spreads. She criticized the Michigan Legislature for failing to support efforts to get people vaccinated.
“These vaccines are still the best tool that we have to stay safe,” Whitmer said.
Khaldun said decreased demand for the vaccine was always expected, and that now the state has more supply than demand.
“But I’m confident that we will eventually get to 70% of Michiganders 16 and up,” Khaldun said. “I can’t give you an exact date, but I’ll tell you that we are working very hard.”
Duggan defends Whitmer
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan joined the briefing to talk about the pandemic and how he believes it was handled in Michigan.
“Throughout this process, we have had great leadership from Gretchen Whitmer,” Duggan said. “And it hasn’t always been easy.”
He said being governor is a tough job because one week people were angry that Whitmer hadn’t resumed high school sports, and the next they were upset that restrictions were loosened too quickly.
“No matter what you do, you get second-guessed,” Duggan said. “But now we’re reopened. People can begin to re-engage and we’re going to have to still be vigilant.”
Duggan said it’s still important for everyone to get vaccinated to avoid another spike in cases.