Whitmer reveals why she tightened Michigan’s mask mandate

‘We could look like Florida in two weeks’ without precautions

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun give an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Like many who can, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her team are still mainly working at home as Michigan has entered its fifth month of the coronavirus pandemic.

“For the most part, I’m working from home. That’s how we’ve got everyone working. It just made sense. We’ve been able to do it without missing a beat and figured why bring everyone together if we don’t need to?” she told the Advance in a phone interview this week.

Last week, Whitmer toughened up the mask mandate, as cases are on the rise again in Michigan, which has had more than 70,000 people sickened and 6,000 people die from COVID-19.

Businesses are now required to deny service to people who don’t wear masks indoors, with limited exceptions for individuals and houses of worship, a misdemeanor subject to a $500 fine.

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Studies show that wearing masks can reduce the spread of coronavirus by at least 70%. 

However, several Republicans and business groups, like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, have torn into the mandate, as the Advance previously reported. It’s the latest example of Republicans fighting her executive orders during the pandemic, as the Legislature filed a lawsuit expected to end up in the Supreme Court. There also are a couple GOP efforts to kill her powers via ballot initiative

Whitmer talked with the Advance about why she took action on masks and the pushback. She also talked about what she would do differently during the COVID-19 crisis if she knew back in January what we know now about the disease. 

And she talked about her roller-coaster political year, in which her poll numbers have risen and former Vice President Joe Biden reportedly vetted her for his No. 2 slot on the Democratic ticket.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

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Michigan Advance: What made you decide to tighten up the mask mandate?

Whitmer: So, we, in six out of eight regions, are in Phase 4 of the reengagement [plan] and two of them were in Phase 5 [the U.P. and Traverse City area]. As we see our numbers continue to climb, I’m not eager to move steps backwards. And so, we wanted to tighten things up in hopes that we can push these numbers down and keep from community spread happening. 

So we’re seven weeks out from when school is supposed to start and the likelihood of us getting kids back in-person school, if we don’t change this trajectory, is very small. And so, that’s what we’re trying to do, tighten things up so that we can continue the reengagement of our economy, get our kids back in school, and stay safe in the process.

Michigan Advance: When are you planning to make a final decision if schools won’t open?

Whitmer: Well, we’re looking at the data every day, about what phase we’re in. The school plan is directly based on what phase a region is in. So, if they’re in Phase 3, there’s not in person instruction. If the region’s in 4, there is but we mandate a number of protocols that would need to be followed. If they’re in phase five, they’re back and they’ve got a lot more discretion.

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Things can change fast, so I can’t possibly tell you where we’ll be seven weeks from now. I do know seven weeks ago, we were one of the strongest states in the nation [for controlling COVID-19]. I know that today we’re in a much more concerning position. And, if we totally dropped our guard, we could look like Florida in two weeks, which would be a catastrophe for our economy, for our health, for our people, for our health systems. 

So this can change fast and I think that’s the scary nature of COVID-19.

Michigan Advance: Knowing what you know now, would you have done a stay-at-home order before March 24?

Whitmer: That’s a good question. I don’t know that I can give you a great answer, other than to say, if I knew everything I know today, I could go in a time machine back to January, I would have started purchasing every N95 mask I could get my hands on. I would have started getting manufacturing in Michigan to start making swabs [for COVID-19 tests]. We would have done some different things at a different cadence.

Part of the orders though, are the public action in reaction to them. So the support of them and that’s always a part of the conversation. That is a hard thing to calculate, but something that’s important because orders don’t do a thing if the public doesn’t believe that they’re necessary and understand why they’re there.

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Michigan Advance: What’s the coordination between the state and local law enforcement to enforce mask usage and your other COVID-19 orders?

Whitmer: We’re working with the attorney general’s office. We’re working with businesses; we’re working with state police, with local police agencies. Now this is, I think, the big question everyone wants to know is: How do we enforce all of this? 

But I think maybe a really important piece of that conversation is that businesses have asked us to give stricter and universal guidance in terms of mask wearing. This was a result of, I think, some confusion and some people intent on flouting best practices, and I know that businesses small and large are worried about remaining open because of the phases of reengagement.

They’re worried about their workforce, their safety, and they’re worried about their customers, as well, knowing that consumer confidence is critical to any business’s success. So, this order came as a result of a number of different needs that we wanted to meet here. And so, I just wanted to highlight that business is an important partner in getting this right. They’ve been able to reengage because we push our numbers down. As the numbers go up, we need their help to make sure that it doesn’t go up so high that we have to disengage.

Michigan Advance: Knowing that businesses have come to you for clarity, is it frustrating that some business groups, especially the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, have been pushing back against a lot of these orders and the mask mandate and playing more of an adversarial role instead of working with your administration?

Whitmer: Well, it is disappointing that the chamber has taken that kind of a position, because all we’re trying to do is keep the economy engaged and that’s what they said they wanted. So you would think that they would embrace the need to ensure that we’re masking up so that the numbers don’t go so high that we’ve got to close things down again. It’s really in all of our best interest, but in particular, businesses’ best interest, to make sure that they do their part to keep people safe so that we don’t have to disengage.

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Michigan Advance: Because there’s an economic argument to be made to mask up, does this come down to just basic electoral politics? A lot of these business groups would like to see Trump reelected and would like to see you lose reelection in 2022, so that’s a factor here?

Whitmer: I don’t know. It does tend to feel that everything is so political right now, just the act of wearing a mask turned into a political question, with a lot of the rhetoric coming out of Washington, D.C. 

I was pleased to see the president don a mask when he went to Walter Reed and I acknowledged [former Vice President] Dick Cheney, which was not something that I ever anticipated doing, and U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and [Vice President] Mike Pence, for wearing masks. 

Because we got to take the politics out of it, and so long as anyone is driving an agenda based on politics when lives are on the line, it’s dangerous and it’s, I think, foolish. Because the politics are this: We get this right, everyone benefits. And anyone who is fighting against getting this right loses in the worst way [because] people’s lives are on the line. But I think, ultimately, it’s a loser politically for them, too.

Michigan Advance: What’s your relationship like now with Trump and his administration?

Whitmer: Well, as I said, I spoke with Secretary Azar this morning. We have a very, I think, good working relationship with the vice president’s office, with FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency]. We’ve had them embedded in our SEOC [State Emergency Operations Center that’s coordinating the coronavirus response] throughout the course of COVID-19. I do think that there are a lot of great, dedicated public servants in the federal government, just like there are at the state and we’ve found a good working relationship there.

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Michigan Advance: What about with the president himself?

Whitmer: I was pleased that he signed the disaster declaration [for flooding in Arenac, Gladwin, Iosco, Midland and Saginaw counties]. I had reached out for a phone call, but that was the subject, so I didn’t get the call but I got the signature and that’s the whole purpose of the call. I think they knew that. I have not spoken directly with the president since the Midland flood, but I have been on a number of calls with the governors across the country and the White House.

Michigan Advance: Are you disappointed that you seem to be out of the running for VP?

Whitmer: There have been so many surreal moments in the last few months. The president taking aim at me and drawing me into the national spotlight, the former vice president [Biden] paying me a great compliment and including me in some of his remarks — it’s been surreal. And yet, the only thing I’ve truly been focused on and everything that I’ve done is trying to make sure that we’ve got Michigan in the strongest position we can be when it comes to COVID and saving lives.

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.