MSU, U of M coaches join Whitmer’s ‘Mask Up’ campaign as COVID-19 cases climb

MSU men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, July 15, 2020 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Prominent head coaches from two flagship Michigan universities joined Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a Wednesday news conference in an effort to encourage Michiganders to “mask up” as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in the state.

The effort comes as Michigan on Wednesday reported 891 new cases and four deaths, the highest number of daily cases since mid-May — something Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, called “concerning.”

Suzy Merchant, who coaches the Michigan State University women’s basketball team, said she was not speaking there as a Republican or Democrat, nor as a Spartan or Wolverine. Whether or not her two children can go back to school and whether or not her team plays later this year are contingent on increased mask-wearing, she said.

“If we want our kids to be in school in the fall, we have to wear a mask,” Merchant said. “If you want to see college football this fall, we have to wear a mask.” 

U-M women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, July 15, 2020 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

University of Michigan women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico, who has three children, also reiterated that K-12 schools will have trouble reopening and college teams won’t play if mask-wearing does not happen on a wider scale.

“We would love to play those rivalry games that you talked about. But we can’t do that,” Arico added. “We can’t do that without all of you, we can’t do that without everyone in our state wearing their masks and protecting each other and doing it for the state of Michigan.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is running a TV ad with Merchant and Arico telling Michigan residents to mask up. It also features other key figures from the universities’ athletic programs: Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker and men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo, plus University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and men’s basketball coach Juwan Howard.

The ad comes days after Whitmer signed an executive order that mandates face coverings be worn in all public indoor and crowded outdoor spaces in the state. Businesses risk losing their licenses if they don’t enforce the order and constituents face a $500 fine and misdemeanor charge if they choose not to comply with it. The order went into effect Monday. 

Izzo, who also appeared at the news conference, said he is disappointed with how some Michigan residents have reacted to mask-wearing and the governor’s latest order on them.

“I love that the governor said this: ‘I don’t care what you put on your mask. Just wear something on your face.’ That was awesome,” Izzo said. 

“I really respect that and I’d rather you not wear that silly ‘M,’ but if you got to do it, you gotta do it,” Izzo joked, referencing the mask Gilchrist wore, which had the U of M logo on it. Gilchrist is a U of M graduate, while the governor is a Spartan. 

MSU women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, July 15, 2020 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Whitmer addresses violence over mask-wearing

Whitmer also addressed a violent altercation that took place a day after the mask order went into effect. Early Tuesday, 43-year-old Grand Ledge resident Sean Ernest Ruis stabbed a 77-year-old man in a Windsor Township Quality Dairy after the latter confronted him for not wearing a mask in the store.

“I’m incredibly sad about the tragedy that happened in Eaton County,” Whitmer said at the news conference. “I’m incredibly sad about the reaction that some have had.”

She said she is “grateful” for the 77-year-old who stepped in to support the Quality Dairy clerk trying to follow the mask order.

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“I cannot ever pretend that I understand someone that would become murderous over wearing a piece of cloth on your face,” Whitmer added. “But what I can say is that violence is never the solution.”

Ruis, a state employee, had been denied service at the Quality Dairy for not wearing a mask. After he stabbed the 77-year-old, he fled the scene. The older man is in stable condition. 

When an Eaton County deputy pursued Ruis and made a traffic stop, Ruis exited his vehicle and approached her with two knives in one hand and a screwdriver in the other. Footage shows the deputy repeatedly telling Ruis to drop the weapons. When he didn’t and continued to approach, she shot him. 

Ruis later died in surgery and the deputy has been placed on administrative leave while the Michigan State Police and Eaton County Prosecutor’s Office review the shooting.