Did Michigan’s March 10 primary play a role in COVID-19’s spread?

Poll workers asked voters to use hand sanitizer before picking up their ballots in Meridian Township, March 10, 2020 | Susan J. Demas

Michigan has been hit the hardest of Upper Midwest states when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s still a lot that’s unknown about the spread of the new virus, but poverty and the transportation hub of Detroit Metro Airport have been cited as possible factors driving Michigan’s numbers.

As of Sunday afternoon, Michigan has 15,718 positive cases and 617 deaths. Johns Hopkins University reports that Pennsylvania has 11,589 cases and 151 deaths. Ohio has 4,043 cases and 119 deaths. And Wisconsin has 2,320 cases and 75 deaths.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer put Michigan under a stay home order on March 24. All Upper Midwest states — and almost all states across the country — are now under such orders, with non-essential businesses closed down and gatherings of 10 or more people banned, although some states are laxer than others.

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The disease has raised concerns about in-person voting in elections across the country. COVID-19 fears led Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and other Democrats to call for the shutdown of Tuesday’s presidential primary, but the Wisconsin Examiner reports that the GOP-controlled Legislature has rebuffed him.

Ohio delayed its March 17 primary until April 28 and it will be conducted via mail. Pennsylvania moved its April 28 election back to June 2.

Michigan was the first state of the bunch to have a presidential primary on March 10. Unofficial returns show about 2.2 million voted across the state, although more than 876,800 cast absentee ballots instead of voting in person. That night, Michigan announced its first two cases and Whitmer declared a state of emergency.

On March 10, there were only 290 cases and 30 deaths in the United States and President Trump was still downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19.

“And we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away,” Trump said on March 10.

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There were no calls to call off the primary, as the disease was at an early stage in the United States. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued safety guidelines for the primary, including:

  • Encourage mail-in methods of voting if allowed in the jurisdiction.
  • Encourage early voting, where voter crowds may be smaller throughout the day.
  • Encourage drive-up voting for eligible voters if allowed in the jurisdiction.
  • Encourage voters planning to vote in-person on election day to arrive at off-peak times.
  • Encourage relocating polling places from nursing homes, long-term care facilities and senior living residences.
  • Consider additional social distancing and other measures to protect these individuals during voting.

But hindsight is 20/20, of course. The March 10 election could be one of several factors that led to COVID-19’s spread in Michigan. And it’s not just Election Day itself, but the runup to it.

For months, Democratic campaigns, Trump’s campaign and various other groups were organizing efforts, gathering in large and small groups across the state, often in close quarters. Organizers and volunteers also engaged in door-to-door efforts and collected signatures to get candidates on the ballot or for citizen-initiated petitions, like a measure to curb lobbyist influence.

Michigan’s primary was considered hugely important in determining the outcome of the Democratic nomination and meant an influx of events. Before dropping out, the campaigns of many hopefuls, including billionaire Mike Bloomberg and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), held Michigan events, with Warren herself appearing at a big rally in Detroit on March 3.

In the days before the primary, the two remaining top contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), descended upon Michigan.

Biden dispatched several surrogates to campaign, including Whitmer, former Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Biden was at four events on March 9, two in Detroit and one apiece in Flint and Grand Rapids.

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Sanders also deployed surrogates, including former gubernatorial candidate Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, actor Danny Glover and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner. The U.S. senator appeared at eight events between March 6 and March 10, including huge rallies in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids.

COVID-19 was on the candidates’ minds, and campaigns provided hand sanitizer at several events.

At a March 10 event at Impression 5 museum in Lansing, Whitmer and former second lady Jill Biden bumped elbows instead of shaking hands with students gathered there — as was the recommendation at the time to stop COVID-19’s spread. On March 16, the CDC issued guidelines for mass gatherings, advising they should be postponed, noting that staying 6 feet apart is recommended social distancing.

Sanders held a March 9 roundtable on the disease in Detroit, where he also doled out elbow bumps. When a reporter asked Sanders what if he was concerned about holding rallies, he said, “[COVID-19] is an issue we think about a whole lot before holding events. We do not hold rallies without consulting with local public health officials first.”

On the night of March 10, Sanders and Biden both canceled their speeches in Ohio amid coronavirus concerns. As it turned out, Michigan marked the end of the traditional campaign, with both candidates forgoing in-person events afterward.

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On March 29, one of Sanders’ state vice chairs, state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit), died after experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms. Sanders mourned the freshman lawmaker as someone who “believed strongly in a fairer future for all.”

Most of the big campaign events — and overall election organizing — took place in Southeast Michigan, because that’s where the state’s population base is. Not surprisingly, metro Detroit is where most COVID-19 cases and deaths have been, too. No one is positing causation, but the intense Michigan campaign at a time before the disease started to explode in the United States is just another X factor for the state.

Not surprisingly, campaigns and political figures are wary of talking about the interplay of the Michigan primary and COVID-19, as there’s so much that isn’t known. It also could be a political football, as Biden and Sanders are still competing for the nomination. And the most vocal partisans for both candidates have an incentive to portray their opponents as being irresponsible in a crisis, regardless of facts.

In a podcast interview for the Atlantic last week, Whitmer was asked by reporter Isaac Dovere why Biden’s March 9 Detroit rally that she spoke at went on amid coronavirus concerns.

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“We were getting so much inconsistent messaging from the federal government and we hadn’t seen it occur in Michigan at that juncture,” she said. “Now, the next day were the first two cases. And that’s when everything went to hyper-speed. But, you know, I’ve thought about that evening, because I’d told people, ‘We’ve got this virus. We’ve got to stop shaking hands.’ We’re doing fist bumps, doing elbow bumps. You know, people were kind of teasing me about it, because they say, ‘Oh, I can shake your hand,’ you know? I think that the inconsistent messaging and the lackadaisical attitude at the national level really undermined the seriousness of the issue for a lot of people. I think it still is.”

She was asked if she could go back in time if she would have advised canceling the rally.

“I would say: ‘Start buying every N95 mask I could get my hands on.’ I would say: ‘Start shutting things down immediately,'” Whitmer said. “You know, despite all that, we’ve been more on the aggressive side and have moved faster than a lot of states. And each of those decisions has hurt. It weighs on you. You worry about people losing their jobs and not having money, and businesses that may not open again, and kids that you’re pulling out of school. And even at that juncture, there was conflicting advice even in the medical community.”

The Advance reached out to a Sanders spokesperson, asking if the campaign had discussed since the primary the decision to hold large Michigan events and if there were regrets. The campaign didn’t respond to the request for comment.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.