Whitmer mum on Gordon exit deal, announces COVID-19 restriction rollbacks

Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon | Casey Hull

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday refused to go into detail about the resignation and the state’s severance agreement with Robert Gordon, the former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). She also announced COVID-19-related restriction rollbacks. 

Gordon, a former Obama administration official who Whitmer appointed in 2019, resigned in late January. Whitmer named Elizabeth Hertel, who previously served as senior chief deputy director for administration for the department as his successor. 

At the time, Gordon issued only a brief tweet: “Today, I am resigning from the Whitmer Administration. It’s been an honor to serve alongside wonderful colleagues. I look forward to the next chapter.”

In December, right-wing protesters showed up at Gordon’s house, angry about the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. He said that the protesters came to his house “in the dark of night, screaming through bullhorns, scaring my children, and trying to intimidate me.”

Few details were given about his departure after leading the department during the COVID-19 pandemic. Whitmer did not say whether she asked Gordon to resign.

This week, some terms of Gordon’s severance were reported. Gordon will receive more than $155,000 in exchange for “releasing all claims against” the state, according to a separation agreement provided to the Detroit Free Press. His salary at the time of departure was $182,000 annually.

Breaking: Hertel takes helm at state health dept.

Pushed on the Gordon exit matter by reporters during Tuesday’s press conference, Whitmer declined to provide details. 

“Robert Gordon and his team were an incredibly important part of our [COVID-19] response. And I appreciated his service to our state,” she said. “Separation agreements are used often in the public and private sector when someone in a leadership position leaves an organization, and due to the nature of the agreement, there’s not a lot more than I can say on the subject. However, I do want to say that there were not any improprieties with Director Gordon’s work. It’s simply that he tendered his resignation and I accepted it.”

Several Republicans have been critical of the agreement.

“When it comes to state agencies responsible for decisions that put public safety and people’s lives and livelihoods on the line, the people of Michigan have every right to full disclosure and transparency,” state Rep. Annette Glenn (R-Midland) said. “Gov. Whitmer should not be allowed to use state tax dollars to pay ‘hush money’ to departing state regulators, and now that it’s been revealed, she should reverse her attempt to force taxpayers to foot the bill for buying Mr. Gordon’s silence.”

More COVID-19 restrictions lifted

Whitmer also announced that DHHS has updated two of its epidemic orders, allowing for increased capacity limits at various venues including bars and restaurants, larger residential and nonresidential gatherings and has expanded visitation opportunities at residential care facilities. The new directive takes effect on Friday and will remain in effect through April 19.

Amid a second wave of cases, DHHS issued a new round of health orders in November, most of which have gradually rolled back as cases and deaths have fallen. As of Tuesday, Michigan has 590,217 COVID-19 cases and 15,558 deaths. 

Changes are designed to balance reopening while controlling the spread of COVID-19 and save Michiganders’ lives, Whitmer reiterated on Tuesday. 

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“As we continue our vaccine rollout and make steady progress against the virus, we are taking additional incremental steps to re-engage to ensure we are protecting our families and frontline workers and saving lives,” said Whitmer. “Michigan is a national leader in the fight against COVID-19, and our fact-based, data-driven approach will help our state rebuild our economy and resume normal day-to-day activities. As always, mask up, maintain social distancing, and wash your hands. We all have a personal responsibility to slow the spread of the virus so we can end this pandemic together. One of the most important things Michiganders can do is make a plan to get the safe and effective vaccine when it’s available to you.”

The move comes after in-person dining resumed Feb. 1 at 25% capacity. That was ordered to stay in place until March 29.

In addition, visitation at nursing homes will be afforded within limits. The order encourages communal dining and group activities for residents and allows indoor and outdoor visitation in all counties regardless of county risk level. Visitation is allowed as long as the facility has not had a new COVID-19 case in the last 14 days and all indoor visitors ages 13 and older are subject to rapid antigen testing. 

Visitors will be required to wear face masks or other personal protective equipment when required by the facility at all times. In general, visitors will need to maintain six feet from residents.  

“While we continue to have coronavirus very present across the entire state, our improvements in case numbers, test positivity, and vaccinations mean we can move forward with reopening in an incremental way,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, DHHS chief medical executive and chief deputy for health. “I am glad we continue to make progress, but that progress is fragile. Everyone should continue to do important things like wearing a mask, washing hands, avoiding large gatherings and getting one of the three safe and effective vaccines when it becomes available to you.”  

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Capacity changes include:

  • Restaurants and bars are allowed to be at 50% capacity up to 100 people. Tables must be six feet apart with no more than six people per table. Curfew is 11 p.m.
  • Indoor non-residential gatherings where people interact across households are permitted up to 25 people, allowing public meetings and other small indoor gatherings to resume.
  • Outdoor non-residential gatherings where people interact across households are permitted up to 300, allowing larger outdoor events to resume.
  • Indoor entertainment venues are allowed to be at 50% capacity, up to 300 people.
  • Exercise facilities are allowed to be at 30% capacity with restrictions on distancing and mask requirements.
  • Retail is allowed to be at 50% capacity.
  • Casinos are allowed to be at 30% capacity.
  • Indoor stadiums and arenas are allowed to have 375 if seating capacity is under 10,000; 750 if seating capacity is over 10,000. 
  • Outdoor entertainment and recreational facilities may host up to 1,000 patrons. 
  • Indoor residential gatherings are now limited to 15 people from three households, while outdoor residential gatherings can include up to 50 people.  
Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.