8 chambers of commerce form group to end COVID business restrictions

Michigan Chamber CEO Rich Studley at a press conference on hiking road funding, Aug. 20, 2019 | Nick Manes

A statewide economic coalition led by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce has formed to urge Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration to fully reopen Michigan businesses during the COVID pandemic, the groups announced Thursday.

As of Thursday, there are a total of 593,279 COVID-19 cases recorded and 15,600 deaths in Michigan. The coalition cites declines in new COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations as reason for being able to reopen.

“The real progress we’ve made, and the need to accelerate safely reopening businesses so that unemployed workers can safely return to the job — that’s at the heart of our message today,” said Michigan Chamber CEO Rich Studley, a frequent Whitmer critic over COVID restrictions whose group typically endorses Republicans.

The “Reopen Michigan Safely” coalition also includes the Grand Rapids Area Chamber, Battle Creek Area Chamber, Lansing Regional Chamber, Traverse Connect, Saginaw County Chamber, Birmingham Bloomfield Chamber and the Southern Wayne County Chamber. 

Veronica Horn of the Saginaw County Chamber was present at the press conference. She is married to state Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), who opposes the Whitmer administration’s health orders, including the mask mandate. The group’s spokesperson is John Sellek, who was a spokesman for GOP former Attorney General Bill Schuette, whom Whitmer defeated in the 2018 gubernatorial election.

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The call for reopening comes just nine days before the emergency COVID-19 rules prohibiting the reopening of business office spaces expire. Whitmer has not yet said whether she plans to renew the rules for another six months.

Currently, office workers must work from home “unless their work cannot feasibly be performed remotely.” Restaurants may be open with 25% capacity and other precautions in place and a 10 p.m. curfew, while retail establishments must also limit capacity and mandate mask wearing.

In a statement, Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy did not directly mention the new coalition but emphasized Whitmer’s efforts to make workplaces safer.

“While countless Michiganders are already safely going to their place of employment, some jobs do not require in-person work, which is why the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) asks employers in those sectors to allow their employees to work from home to maximize safety unless it is absolutely necessary for employees to be in the office,” Leddy said.

“Earlier this week, Governor Whitmer created a work group of business and labor leaders to make recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep their employees safe while in the workplace,” he added. “We are all anxious to return to life as normal, and that’s why our administration is laser-focused on ramping up vaccine distribution and supporting small businesses to help us get there.”

Grand Rapids Chamber President and CEO Rick Baker told the Advance in an interview Thursday that from the business perspective, it has been a year with these rules in place and businesses are better equipped than ever to operate with COVID-19 safety precautions.

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But if COVID-19 cases and deaths begin to rise as a result of reopening, Baker said the groups will monitor the situation and adjust as needed. He did not say specifically what thresholds would trigger a fallback on the reopening plans.

“All of us are monitoring that. … We’ll make adjustments accordingly,” Baker said.

As for whether the coalition backs a statewide mask mandate, Baker said the prospect was not discussed. “We didn’t talk about that, so I don’t know if I can answer that on behalf of the coalition,” Baker said.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has issued a mask order, but the GOP-led Legislature has repeatedly declined to codify it into law.

In a radio interview Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said that if he were governor, he would “do something similar, not exactly the same, but similar to what Gov. [Greg] Abbott has done in Texas.”

The Republican governor earlier this week lifted the state’s mask mandate and fully reopened businesses, as several other red state governors have done.