Michigan business leaders urge Whitmer and Republicans to unite on COVID
As a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic takes hold in Michigan, a bipartisan group of business leaders has a message for the state’s elected officials: It’s time to battle the virus, not each other.
The situation is now urgent, they said, due to rising COVID-19 cases that this week mirror the peak infections from early April. Hospitalization rates are up, and outbreaks are spreading across all age groups; and though deaths are up, they remain far lower than in the spring.
The health crisis is rebounding in a state where more than 2 million people experienced some job loss since March and as many businesses still try to rebuild lost revenue.
“We have a lot at stake economically to not let this get out of hand,” said Gerry Anderson, chairman of DTE Energy and co-chair of the Michigan Economic Recovery Council (MERC).
Anderson is among the 32 business leaders who signed the three-page letter that was delivered to elected officials on Wednesday. He was joined by leaders from CEOs of companies across the state that ranged from global brands like General Motors and Dow, to Meijer, Wolverine Worldwide and Steelcase. Multiple universities and health care facilities are on the list, as are business advocacy groups like the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Lansing Regional Chamber, the Small Business Association of Michigan and the Michigan Manufacturers Association.
What Michigan needs, according to the letter, “is complete unity of purpose and a strong collective response across our state. We call on our government leaders to foster that unity.”
That’s a reference to months of sniping between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Republican Legislature over the governor’s emergency power authority since the pandemic hit in March, efforts Anderson and MERC played a role in. A Michigan Supreme Court ruling Oct. 2 negated Whitmer’s executive orders, effectively ending her ability to issue executive orders without input from the legislative branch.
Since then, Whitmer and the Legislature have had to agree on which of her orders to codify into law, including ones that extend unemployment benefits. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHSS) has since issued its own orders, such as mandatory mask-wearing, that were similar to Whitmer’s.
Republican leadership in the Legislature continues to push against the Democrat’s steps to control the virus, which have included occupancy limits on businesses and social gatherings. More recently, their discussions have ranged from herd immunity policies (promoted by some Republicans, opposed by Democrats) to enacting local control authority to opt-out of state lockdown orders if warranted.
The result, Anderson said in an interview with Bridge Michigan on Wednesday, is confusion for the public and greater risk of virus spread.
That confusion, he added, showed up in public behavior. People were showing up at hospitals, stores and supermarkets without masks, while outbreaks have been tied to social gatherings. All of that increased the risk of more public spread, Anderson aid.
“When behaviors change, results change,” said Anderson. (Disclosure: The DTE Energy Foundation is a funder to the Center for Michigan, which includes Bridge Michigan.)
Parsing details about regulations is not productive when the pandemic appears to be heading for peak infection rates, he added.
After the Supreme Court ruling “we then started to see lots of public discussion about what was needed and what was not needed,” Anderson said. “As you’ve got a second wave on your doorstep, that’s not creating the unity and mindset and clarity that you need to turn it back."
Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, agreed.
He said businesses have a range of approaches to operating during the pandemic, but a common goal is to remain open. Many were closed by executive order for two months or longer, and reopening has come with capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements.
“We need to continue to take this virus seriously,” he said. “We need to understand that controlling the virus means economic success. These two are interlinked.”
Baruah noted some recent steps toward bipartisan leadership in the state during the pandemic, including a plan to limit legal liability for businesses. Democrats and Republicans agreed on the budget approved for this fiscal year, which resulted in funding for the Going Pro and Pure Michigan career and tourism programs.
“We just want to encourage that continued ethos,” Baruah said.
Beyond unity, Anderson said that elected officials should stop trying to look for new ways to reduce statewide mandatory protection standards until the virus is under control again, as it was in June.
Until then, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services regulations on masks, workplace practices and public gatherings “are sufficient,” according to the letter.
“We hold these views because of what we have learned in our hospitals and businesses: the disciplined use of COVID-19 safety practices clearly works to minimize viral spread,” it says.
“And we hold these views because the evidence strongly suggests – both in Michigan and the other states/countries in which many of us operate – that without such clear standards, people struggle to band together to effectively control viral spread. “
That doesn’t mean that today’s regulations need to stay in place uniformly across the state until the pandemic is over, Anderson says.
“We can refine them over time if we want to,” Anderson said. “But this is urgent enough that we can’t spend time arguing about [them].”
Anderson said that by midday Wednesday he hadn’t heard a response from Republican legislators. A spokesperson for the Michigan House of Representatives did not provide a response when asked by Bridge Michigan.
“I’m hopeful they will pay serious attention,” Anderson said.
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