Whitmer signs ‘stay at home’ order, warns businesses not to ‘play fast and loose’ with public health

‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ to take effect after midnight Tuesday

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs a stay at home order to fight COVID-19, March 23, 2020 | Gov. Whitmer office photo
Updated, 3:02 p.m., 3/23/20, with comments from Speaker Chatfield

After days of speculation that Michigan would join other states in ordering a “stay at home” measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday announced that, after careful consideration with top public health officials over the weekend, she has decided to implement an aggressive plan to do just that.

A statewide coronavirus hotline is open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1-888-535-6136. Information can be found on the DHHS website or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention website.

“The goal here is simple: Stay home; stay safe; save lives,” Whitmer said at a Monday morning press conference at the state Capitol. “This will be temporary. This intervention is important to buy time so we can create surge capacity in our hospitals.”

As the Advance first reported Monday morning, Whitmer was briefed over the weekend by epidemiologists from University of Michigan, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania. 

“She is basing decisions on science and facts, and she is committed to doing everything we can to slow the spread of the virus and save human lives,” spokesman Zack Pohl told the Advance Monday morning. 

Beyond Michigan, similar orders have also been directed by governors in Ohio, California, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and Louisiana.

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What it will look like

Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order directs all Michiganders to stay home and for all non-critical businesses to temporarily close, effective at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. It is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. April 13.

Michigan now has 1,232 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, and there have been 15 deaths.

Whitmer said that in Michigan, too many people being out in public necessarily triggered the need for more aggressive statewide action.

“If we stay on our current trajectory, just like Italy, over 70% of our people could get infected with COVID-19,” Whitmer said.

For Michigan’s roughly 10 million population, that’s about 7 million people. Whitmer added that 1 million would need to be hospitalized under that dire scenario.

Under the executive order, individuals will temporarily need to stay at home or at their place of residence. All public and private gatherings elsewhere will be prohibited.

Individuals may only leave their house for outdoor activities (while maintaining a 6-foot distance from others); performing tasks that are necessary to their health and safety, like picking up medications or addressing a medical emergency; and to obtain necessary services or supplies, like groceries, take-out food, gasoline, etc.

Whitmer encouraged Michiganders to use the delivery option if they wish to order food to limit contact with others, and said that “the food supply chain is robust and prepared to meet the needs of people across the state” during this time.

As for places of work, the order will only allow people to work in-person if their work is deemed “necessary to sustain or protect life.” The qualifications for this definition are outlined in Whitmer’s executive order.

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Whitmer noted that her order to close schools in Michigan will still remain at least through April 13 after originally being set to expire on April 5. She noted she will have “more to say on this subject soon.”

“I want you to know, I didn’t make this decision lightly. I’ve consulted with medical experts from across the country and right here at home,” Whitmer said.

The measures will last for at least three weeks.

Why it was necessary

“In just 13 days, we’ve gone from zero to 1,232 confirmed cases of the coronavirus COVID-19. It has doubled over the weekend. This virus is spreading exponentially,” Whitmer said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs a stay at home order to fight COVID-19, March 23, 2020 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

In a press release, the governor’s office noted that Michigan now ranks among the top five states in number of confirmed positive cases with those new figures. Experts believe that the real number of cases is much higher, however, because there is a shortage of COVID-19 tests and individuals carrying the illness can be asymptomatic for up to two weeks.

According to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the deaths related to the illness have also increased to 15 as of Monday morning.

“The cases are spread out across dozens of counties across the state, including the Upper Peninsula,” Khaldun said, with community spread of the virus identified in “several areas” of Michigan.

“If we do nothing, very rough models estimate that the number of cases in Michigan could increase fivefold in the next week,” Khaldun said.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun gives an update on COVID-19, March 18, 2020 | Susan J. Demas

Whitmer said a stay at home order is the best tool to fight against COVID-19 at this point, because there is still no cure or vaccine. The most useful thing Michiganders can do is stay home to buy some time for our health care system to respond.

“This disease can’t spread person-to-person if we’re not out there,” Whitmer added.

Vaping could make young people more vulnerable

Whitmer emphasized that there is a widespread public misunderstanding that young people are safer to go about their normal lives than older people, as it has been circulated that only seniors get serious complications from COVID-19.

Whitmer addressed this directly, telling young people: “You are not immune from this. You can get this virus. And in fact, 40% of the hospitalizations and positive cases are among people 20 to 49 [years of age]. 

“You can carry this without even knowing it and be unknowingly exposing others to it. If you don’t take this order seriously, we will have to observe [this order] longer than we need to,” she said.

Whitmer also pointed to a possible link between vaping and increased susceptibility to the disease, which would make young people in the United States more vulnerable to COVID-19 than they are elsewhere.

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“In America, we are seeing severe consequences in our younger people in ways that they haven’t seen in other parts of the world,” Whitmer said. 

Citing what she says several physicians have told her, she said: “Vaping is a lot more popular in the United States than it is elsewhere. And that compromises your respiratory system and makes you more susceptible to respiratory illness. 

“And so, this is a crisis that we are feeling in ways that other parts of the world hasn’t even experienced,” Whitmer said.

Notably, Michigan was the first state last fall to ban the sale of flavored vaping products, which garnered criticism from many GOP lawmakers and is currently tied up in court. 

A warning to business owners

Over the weekend, the Republican-aligned Michigan Chamber of Commerce – the state’s most powerful business lobby – came out strongly against a shelter in place order in a letter to Whitmer. The organization argued, along with other state business groups, that such a measure would harm Michigan’s economy.

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After Ohio announced a stay at home order Sunday, there were media reports that the Michigan Chamber and business groups were now advising the governor on her measure. The Advance learned that business groups had been sending “unsolicited memos” to Whitmer since last week, but epidemiologists were the ones involved in advising the stay at home order.

During the Monday press conference, Whitmer warned business owners that they must heed her directive or face consequences for endangering public health.

“Don’t play fast and loose with what is essential and what’s not. Don’t try to skirt the rules. If you’re not an essential business, you need to close and you need to protect your employees,” Whitmer said.

She made mention of fines associated with noncompliance from businesses, and said that there is the possibility of forcibly shutting down those businesses that do not heed the order. Whitmer said more details on fines and enforcement were forthcoming.

“In the long run, doing this now shortens the time our economy suffers,” she added, emphasizing that Michiganders should take the order seriously now so that it can be lifted sooner.

Breaking: Whitmer shutting down bar, restaurant dine-in service at 3 p.m. Monday

“This is not a recommendation. This is an order. And we take it very seriously — this is about the public health of our people,” Whitmer said.

In a statement, the Detroit-based Business Leaders for Michigan recognized that although the economic consequences will be “painful,” the first priority should be public health and safety.

“The action the Governor took today will impact all of us but was necessary to ensure that all Michiganders have the best opportunity to remain healthy through this crisis,” the statement read.

“Michiganders have helped America win two world wars and recover from some of the greatest economic shocks to our nation. We will do the same during this crisis as we have every other. We will lead by example and stand together to serve our great state.”

Toward the end of her press conference, Whitmer said: “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.”

Federal response

Whitmer once again slammed the President Trump administration for not taking robust preventative measures to prepare for the outbreak.

Trump attacks Whitmer on Twitter after she asks feds for more support

She said states have largely been left to their own devices to deal with COVID-19, and the supplies that the federal government has allotted to Michigan hospitals have been barely enough to cover one day’s shift at a single hospital.

“So while I can’t do overnight what the federal government should have done over the course of months in planning, my team and I are working 24/7 to secure the things we need,” Whitmer said. 

She said that with the help of Michigan companies and individuals, the state has been able to secure more than 4 million gloves, 4 million masks, and thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer.

“While that’s a source of pride, and that is good, it is nowhere near enough,” Whitmer said.

The lack of tests also remains a problem, as it does elsewhere across the country. Khaldun attributed that to the federal government not making tests available quickly enough to have a comprehensive understanding of the scope of the virus.

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Response from lawmakers, officials

In a statement responding to Whitmer’s stay at home order, Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said the new measure is dramatic, but necessary to fight against the virus.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey | Laina G. Stebbins

“Michigan has moved into a new phase in our battle against COVID-19. It is a step none of us wanted to see happen, but one that is necessary. Our response to these orders could be the determining factor in how long the virus impacts our state,” Shirkey said.

He added that the Senate has been “in regular communication” with Whitmer on how best to approach the situation, and is “actively working on short and long-term responses” that will lessen the negative impact on families, jobs and the economy.

On Twitter Monday afternoon, House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) wrote: “Right now, @GovWhitmer is in the best & most informed position to determine what’s best for public health. Although these measures will prove painful, I appreciate & support her efforts. We’re all on the same team. No time for politics. We’re going to get through this together.”*

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) called the order “the hard choice, and the right choice.”

“If we all follow this directive, we have a much better shot at flattening the curve and preventing further stress on our medical systems,” Ananich said in a statement after the press conference.

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter, March 18, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Oakland County Executive David Coulter also applauded Whitmer’s decision, adding that “Oakland County is already working on plans to assist businesses and employees,” and will provide resources to help them further after the orders are lifted.

“We’re all in this together and each must do his or her part to stabilize our health care system and halt the transmission of the coronavirus,” Coulter said.

Both Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel also said they support the stay at home order.