WASHINGTON — Michiganders have tons of questions about what COVID-19 means for their lives and about what the federal government is doing about it.
Those were just some of the questions being asked of U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) this week as she held a telephone town hall on the crisis.
Slotkin, like the rest of Michigan’s congressional delegation, is scrambling to respond to mounting public concern about the crisis as COVID-19 continues to spread in the state. Meanwhile, lawmakers are considering legislation that could potentially spend hundreds of billions of dollars to stimulate the economy.
For now, politicians on both sides of the aisle say they’re transcending the partisan politics that have gripped Washington in recent years in an effort to curb the impact of the pandemic. And over the long term, there’s a shared sense among some of Michigan’s lawmakers that COVID-19 could fundamentally alter everything from political discourse to the U.S. health care system.
“We are living through an unprecedented and new moment in modern human society,” U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) told the Advance in an interview. “I am confident that we will be changed as a result of COVID-19, but am optimistic — as I always am — that we will be stronger, we will be better and we will be more secure as a result.”
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced Friday afternoon that the state had 549 known positive cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus. At least four people in Michigan have died due to the disease.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this week ordered the closure of many public places and limited restaurants to carry-out and delivery orders.
The federal government this week also passed legislation to ensure paid leave for workers who get sick or who are caring for family members. Lawmakers are now debating another sweeping stimulus package that could cost up to $1 trillion.
President Donald Trump announced this week announced that he’s invoking a law known as the Defense Production Act to force U.S. businesses to produce necessary health care supplies. And the administration said it would suspend foreclosures and evictions through April.
The administration continues to come under fire from its critics, who argue that by downplaying the virus early on, Trump and his allies hamstrung early efforts to contain the virus.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) told the Advance this week that there was broad frustration by lawmakers who weren’t satisfied by the administration’s efforts early on to ensure adequate testing.
“There was universal anger from both Democrats and Republicans senators,” Peters said, who wondered at the time, “Why is there not a plan to deal with this?”
The administration has since come forward with plans to improve testing, he said, “but it should have happened a long time ago.”
Peters stressed that he doesn’t want to focus on what should have gone better. “There will be pandemics again in the future, unfortunately, but we need to focus on the future right now.”
For now, lawmakers are trying to answer the barrage of queries they’re getting from constituents, many of them uncertain about their health and their economic futures.
“People have a lot of questions that we’re trying to resolve,” said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St Joseph). He fielded a call one evening this week from an employer concerned about a worker who lives in South Bend and had gone home after experiencing flu-like symptoms.
U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) has heard from the owner of a small cleaning company who’s worried her business will go under. Others are reaching out to him because they’re concerned about their families.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) is hearing daily from workers who are afraid of taking sick time because they won’t get paid. He has talked to small business owners who have seen major disruptions and are worried about the future, he said. And his constituents want expanded and faster testing for the virus.
“The abrupt disruption to people’s livelihood has already started to take a toll and raise a lot of questions for the workforce” of Stevens’ district, she said.
‘Put down the partisan pitchfork’
Michigan lawmakers say they’ve been able to cast partisanship aside as they confront the crisis.
The federal response “has to be bipartisan,” Upton said. The veteran Republican lawmaker has served in Congress since 1987, during major national disasters like the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial crisis.
“There’s nothing like this that we’re going through now,” Upton said. “We’re just hoping to see the exit door.”
For those responsible for governing now, “You’ve got to put down the partisan pitchfork and get to work,” said Stevens. She said that’s been happening among officials in Michigan and in Congress.
Trump, however, inflamed partisan tensions this week when he lashed out at Whitmer on Twitter following the governor’s call for more federal support to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Peters called Trump’s remarks “irresponsible and unacceptable,” and praised Whitmer’s response to the crisis. “Michigan has leaned into this more than most states; she has been out front.”
Having a president who’s “throwing rocks,” Peters added, “does not help us come together as a country. This is about America and we need leaders that understand this is something bigger than themselves.”
With the U.S. House in recess this week, Michigan lawmakers are back in their districts and taking varied approaches to social distancing as they hold telephone town halls and field near-constant phone calls about the pandemic.
Levin has set up a cleaning station on his kitchen counter, complete with cloths and a bottle of solution. He’s telling his family to clean their cellphones and laptops once a day.
He’s encouraging people to stay home when possible, but also to get outdoors. “Walk your dog” and say hello to “your neighbors walking by,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) is urging her constituents — even those who are young and healthy — to “please listen to our officials and folks when they say please stay home,” she said on a town hall call this week. “We are a community and we rely on everyone to do their part.”
Upton has his staff working remotely and he’s mostly “hunkered down” and working from his kitchen table. He’s done some traveling around his district to meet with health care workers and others. He visited a local grocery store, where the shelves seemed well-stocked.
Michigan lawmakers expect to be tackling this crisis for a long time.
While some people are stepping up their calls for a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. health care system, like the implementation of Medicare for All, Slotkin said, “We will have plenty of time to have the political conversation after this.”
Right now, she said, “We are in the middle of an emerging crisis and there are going to be a lot of lessons learned from this process, from this crisis, on our health care system, our public health system, our federal versus state conversations. … There will be really important lessons that we learn from this.”
Peters said lawmakers need to focus on helping the Americans who live paycheck to paycheck. “They’re not going to be able to weather this storm as it goes forward,” he said.
“I’m afraid the storm is likely to last longer than most people realize.”