Whitmer wants federal COVID-19 relief doled out. Republicans want remaining restrictions lifted first.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Michigan House Republicans say that in order for the state’s GOP-led Legislature to consider allocations for federal COVID-19 relief, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will first need to reopen restaurants for indoor dining.

House Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) said last week he “can’t envision starting conversations about how to allocate additional federal COVID-19 relief funds until the governor shows more willingness to restore the economy and a sense of normalcy.”

“Enough is enough,” Albert said in a statement Friday. “As the 101st Legislature prepares to convene [this] week, I am counting on the governor to be a full partner with lawmakers as mandated by our Constitution.  I fully intend to employ the checks and balances required in our system of government. We will not simply hand over billions of taxpayer dollars to extend the current way of governing.”

This is just the latest demand from the Republican-led Legislature for the Democratic governor’s administration to forgo pandemic orders. Lawmakers have criticized since the first weeks of the pandemic and successfully sued in October to overturn the law she used for many of her COVID-19 orders. 

DHHS COVID-19 graphic, Dec. 18, 2020

This follows a national trend for Republicans in other states.

Most restrictions have been lifted, including a ban on in-person learning for high schools and colleges, and venues like movie theaters and bowling alleys are open. The current restrictions on indoor dining, indoor group fitness classes, night clubs and more issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)  are set to expire Friday. They were issued in November as Michigan saw its second wave of cases.

Michigan has more than 523,000 cases and 13,400 deaths as of Monday.

Last month, Congress approved another COVID-19 relief package of $900 billion and about $3.7 billion will be sent to Michigan. 

The COVID-19 relief includes more than $90 million in vaccine funding for Michigan, more than $575 million for COVID-19 testing and tracing and more than $415 million in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding to support hungry families. 

Shirkey teams up with Unlock Michigan to ‘put pressure’ on Whitmer over COVID-19 restrictions

During a press conference Friday, Whitmer said that she hopes Albert wasn’t “implying that they would withhold hundreds of millions of dollars for vaccinations, for testing, for education, for our kids, for eviction relief.”

“I hope that’s not what they’re threatening, because that would be just devastating to so many people in our state,” Whitmer said.  

State Rep. Ben Frederick (R-Owosso) sent Whitmer a letter Monday imploring her to lift the restaurant restrictions. 

“The stories of hardship are everywhere,” Frederick said in the letter. “Restaurant employees trying to provide for themselves and their children are at a financial breaking point. Families whose livelihoods revolve around operating a small restaurant are draining life savings, struggling to make ends meet, and getting in deeper financial trouble every single day that statewide restrictions continue.”

Many business groups have clamored to end pandemic restrictions. Rich Studley, Michigan Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, took to Twitter last week to “commend” Albert for his stance. 

“State [government’s] response to COVID-19 can no longer hinge on one person and appropriation bills aren’t blank checks,” Studley tweeted.

Many Democrats were critical of the threat to withhold relief money while COVID-19 continues to spread across the state.

“It’s totally irresponsible to even suggest holding hostage much-needed relief when vaccine distribution is the most important thing to getting the economy moving again,” House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Twp.) said in a statement. “I call on House Republicans to release the federal funds now for vaccines that can save lives and help reopen our economy.” 

Rep. Joe Tate (D-Detroit), the Democratic ranking member on Appropriations, said that now is not the time to “use desperately needed relief as a political bargaining chip.”

Dr. Farhan Bhatti, a Lansing-based family physician and Michigan lead for the Committee to Protect Medicare called the GOP action “unconscionable, especially to health care workers like me who continue to put our lives on the line to keep our communities safe.”

“This federal funding, which is already long overdue, is critical for us to be able to distribute more vaccines and do more tests to protect against COVID-19 spread,” Bhatti said. “The vaccine is our best chance at being able to resume a more normal way of life, but House Republicans are intent on jeopardizing that to get their way on indoor dining, an activity that still presents considerable risk as a hyper-contagious new strain of the virus barrages our country. We all want to be able to support our local restaurants and employees in person, but the best way to do that is to get people vaccinated as quickly and effectively as possible to eradicate the pandemic — something Republicans are now standing directly in the way of doing.”