Whitmer: Facts, science will guide Michigan’s economic reentry when COVID-19 cases drop

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun give an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo
Updated, 7:23 a.m. 4/18/20

Michigan’s stay home order is in place until April 30 and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has not yet given a firm* timeframe for loosening regulations to stop the spread of COVID-19. On Friday, she did release some details about her plan to reopen Michigan’s economy, which she said is dependent on facts, science and medical advice.

She added reengagement practices will begin in low-risk sectors, like employment that involves little to no human interaction, and in regions that have low case numbers, adding that she’ll be keeping a close eye on regional data.

Whitmer will need to look at whether workers interact with the public, their workplace is located indoors or outdoors, workers are in close proximity to one another and they share tools or machinery. 

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She also will be tracking COVID-19 testing data, and the number of cases being reported in different regions of Michigan. Each of those factors will help determine where the lowest risk is and where to re-engage the economy, she said.

“We’ve got to know how much COVID-19 is still present here, so the more people that get tested, the better,” Whitmer said at a press conference.  

There are 30,023 positive cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, as of 3 p.m. Friday, although state officials believe the actual number of cases is much higher. Michigan now has 2,227 people who have died of COVID-19 after 134 new deaths were reported since Thursday. The state reports a case fatality rate of 7%.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said that the rate of growth in COVID-19 cases has plateaued. That’s a good thing, she said, but added DHHS still must be mindful about the cases and deaths still being reported.

She also said that DHHS is keeping a close eye on data coming in from different parts of the state to ensure that the department is responding appropriately. Khaldun also renewed her call for social distancing in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Social distancing remains the single most important thing we can do to prevent this disease from spreading and to save lives,” said Khaldun.

Whitmer said economic reengagement won’t happen in a day, but that it will happen in waves.

“Any return to work will be phased in carefully so that we can track the impact of lifting social distancing measures and what that means for the spread of COVID-19. Our No. 1 priority here is keeping people safe,” said Whitmer.

In addition, Whitmer said that she’ll also be working closely with health, business and labor groups to ensure best practices are used when people do return to work, like new workplace arrangements to enable social distancing, like screening of employees and members of the public, hand washing and availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace.

Senate GOP business plan

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) released his “Open Michigan Safely” plan Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey speaks at the auto insurance reform bill signing, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

The plan has sparked criticism from Senate Democrats serving on the bipartisan “Safe Behavior for Safe Workplaces” panel he convened last week who say they were blindsided by the release.

The panel consists of a bipartisan taskforce composed of Shirkey and Sens. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), Curt VanderWalll (R-Ludington), Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) and Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield).

Shirkey’s plan outlines the reopening of Michigan’s economy with five phases dependent upon sustained case and death declines and patient loads at hospitals.

Phase one is similar to Whitmer’s stay home order — it calls for people to wear masks if going out, but calls to adopt Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency guidelines issued March 28, which would allow landscapers and housing construction workers to stay on the job during the pandemic.

Once cases and deaths decrease for five out of seven days and hospital systems are below 75% capacity, officials would launch phase two of the plan, allowing lower exposure risk businesses to open with safety protocols such as mask usage and social distancing.

Senate Republican Proposal … by Madeline Ciak on Scribd

Under phase three, bars and restaurants could reopen at 50% capacity with groups seated six feet apart and for gatherings of fewer than 100 people, but only if cases and deaths fall 17 out of 21 days or hospital capacity falls below 50%.

People also would be encouraged to get tested for COVID-19 antibodies, wear masks and comply with some restrictions on local travel under phase three.

Phase four would allow bars and restaurants to open with full seating capacity and for gatherings of fewer than 250 people after cases and deaths fall for 19 of 21 days and hospitals are below 33% capacity. Masks and social distancing limitations would be lifted under phase four.

Phase five would allow for a restart of festivals, sporting events and concerts after active spread of COVID-19 stopped for 30 days or a vaccine was available. 

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However, this plan was released without any input from Democratic lawmakers, who have been vocal about not being included.

Chang tweeted she and other group members have been having conversations and were moving towards consensus about safe workplace practices and bringing in public health experts.

“Now Senate GOP releases its own plan? What happened to bipartisanship?” asked Chang.

Sen. Stephanie Chang speaks at the 31st Annual Crime Victims’ Vigil, April 17, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

In another tweet, Chang said that there were many factors missing from the plan, including PPE, childcare access, paid leave plans, and workers compensation presumption if a worker gets COVID-19.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), who also chimed in about the plan.

“On the day that Michigan reached 2,000 dead, Senate Republicans issued a haphazard ‘plan’ that has no input from the frontline responders who are saving lives every day. I said from the beginning that we’re going to get through this together. One man’s idea is not a plan.”  

However, Horn and Moss said the workgroup is still continuing progress on recommendations on how best to reopen Michigan for work and has received over 3,000 submissions from residents on its website.

Candidate filing deadline won’t be extended

Whitmer said Friday she will not extend the Tuesday deadline for candidates for state and federal office to file for the August primary election. 

Candidates for the state House can pay a $100 fee or collect 100 valid signatures, for instance, but candidates for the U.S. House need a minimum of 1,000 valid signatures to qualify. That’s been a challenge to collect during the COVID-19 crisis, as the Advance previously reported.

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The deadline to get on the August primary ballot for candidates is 4 p.m. Tuesday. The deadline for county precinct delegates is 4 p.m. May 5.

Whitmer said that deadlines are critical in terms of keeping elections on schedule, but did not clarify if she would be extending the deadline.

“In times of crisis, it’s we protect these fundamentals that are the truths of our democracy. It’s important that we continue to have our elections, do them as well as we can and keep people safe in the process,” said Whitmer.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson tweeted that she supports that decision, adding that they have to make sure democracy stays on schedule. 

Mental health help

As COVID-19 is taking a toll on people’s physical and mental health, a new partnership announced Friday aims to help people cope with stress and anxiety.

Whitmer announced the “Stay Home, Stay MIndful” website in partnership with DHHS and Headspace, a company focused on helping people improve their mental health through the use of a meditation app to provide a new mental health resource for Michiganders to access for free during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Michiganders can now access guided meditation and at-home workouts to help address rising stress and anxiety for free online

“Michiganders have faced an unprecedented crisis over the past month, and in these uncertain times having access to mental health resources is crucial,” said Whitmer.