Many people will define 2020 as the year COVID-19 uprooted life as we knew it. And for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the COVID-19 pandemic could be the greatest defining moments in her political career.
Whitmer was catapulted into the national spotlight as she fought against a pandemic that killed thousands of people in her state and unemployed hundreds of thousands more, while GOP President Donald Trump and Michigan Republicans continually criticized her efforts and extremists threatened her with violence and plotted to kidnap and kill her.
In Michigan, more than 466,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and 11,705 have died from the disease.
“I haven’t really had a lot of time to process the year,” Whitmer, a first-term Democrat, said during a year-end press conference Monday. “We are recognized as a leader in our fight against COVID and following the science and listening to the phenomenal team that we’ve built up throughout this process. I think that has been really important in contributing to our ability to save lives in the midst of a global pandemic, to keep our eye on what really matters and not get distracted by noise or threats or really anything else.”
But she said that through all the successes she has had this year, there are still things she recognizes that have taken a hit while she works to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. One of the biggest industries to feel the blow of the pandemic is the restaurant industry.
“That is continually on my mind. I have a lot of concern for the industry and I want this industry to succeed,” Whitmer said.
Whitmer has closed and restricted restaurants throughout the pandemic, loosening restrictions when COVID-19 cases are low and ramping back up on social distancing protocols when cases rise.
One of the latest orders came last month when the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) prohibited restaurants from offering indoor dining. Last week, DHHS extended the order until Jan. 15.
“It’s not the restaurant industry’s fault that COVID-19 is here and it’s not my fault, either. It’s not the White House’s fault, either,” Whitmer said. “This is the type of virus that spreads in an environment where people are indoors, where they are combining lots of different households and where people are not wearing their masks. That’s the definition of a restaurant, sadly.”
Whitmer is keeping an eye on the upcoming holidays to make sure that COVID-19 numbers do not spike due to family gatherings, but said if cases, deaths and hospitalizations continue to trend down after the holiday season, her team will have conversations around lifting some restrictions in the new year.
“We’re hopeful that Michiganders do what we did over Thanksgiving, didn’t travel as much, didn’t gather as much, didn’t contribute to as much spread,” Whitmer said. “And if that’s the case, we could take more aggressive steps to reengage right after the first of the year.”
Whitmer said that she has been urging the state Legislature to allocate some resources to businesses to help them survive through the pandemic and protect the state’s local economy.
On Monday, the GOP-led legislature passed a $465.07 million supplemental funding bill for COVID-19 relief during the last Lame Duck session of substance, which included $55 million for small businesses impacted by the restrictions.
The governor said she is glad that the Legislature took action on the COVID-19 relief legislation, adding that she was “reticent to encourage them to do anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary, considering how they contributed and had been victims of the spread of COVID.”
“The less they were in town congregating, I always thought, the better, frankly, at this moment,” she said.
Whitmer’s relationship with Republican leaders in the state’s legislature has been contentious this year, as they have butted heads about COVID-19 efforts and GOP leaders have yet to condemn far-right extremism that has grown during the pandemic.
In October, the Federal Bureau of Investigations announced details of a self-proclaimed militia’s plans to kidnap and execute Whitmer. While the news was shocking and sobering, anti-lockdown protests had been plagued with symbols of hate, violence and threats for months before the news broke.
Whitmer has asked Republicans in Michigan and in the White House to “bring down the heat,” noting that hateful messages online spike when the President targets her online.
“As soon as the president targeted me, it changed the dynamic on the ground here in Michigan,” she said.
“Condemning it would be a good step in the right direction. I don’t think they’ve even really done enough on that, to be honest,” Whitmer said. “And I reached out and asked our legislative leaders to help bring the heat down. They didn’t do it on time. In fact, they shared the stage with people who ultimately were indicted for plotting to kidnap and ultimately execute me … But I do think that that’s important context for some of the stuff that’s played out in 2020. My life and my family’s lives were threatened frequently in a very serious manner that got international headlines.”
“So I’m going to continue to stay focused on my job, and do everything that I can to get our state through this tough time, because that’s what I was elected to do and nothing’s going to distract me from doing that,” she added.