It’s hard for Damon Glei, owner of Glei’s Orchards and Greenhouses in Hillsdale, to determine where his 103-year-old business fits into Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s extended stay-at-home order.
He farms and sells food products, but also grows and sells plants. Does that make him one of the industries identified by the state and federal government as essential and allowed to stay open?
Or is he a retailer barred from selling gardening supplies under Whitmer’s expanded order Thursday?
“We asked the governor’s office, and they wouldn’t give us any direction. We can’t get any direction from the Michigan Department of Agriculture,” Glei said.
The Michigan Farm Bureau advised him not to sell plants, but after consulting with lawyers, he’s decided to stay open, limiting the number of customers in the store and offering curbside pickup.
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“It’s been a very stressful weekend for me,” he said.
Glei is among many Michigan retailers and customers who said they are confused about how to comply with the order and frustrated with a lack of guidance from the state over the weekend.
The governor’s office has released an extensive FAQ addressing some questions raised by the order, which lasts until month’s end.
For instance, residents can:
- Go kayaking, boating, sailing or canoeing, but not in a motorized pontoon boat or anything that would require a trip to a gas station.
- Mow their own lawn, but not hire someone else to do it.
- Travel to care for an elderly relative, but not to visit friends or go to second homes.
- Go for a walk in a park, but not go golfing.
- Attend church and, despite confusion on social media, buy a car seat for a child.
“I recognize that there are a lot of passionate gardeners in Michigan, and I’ve heard from a lot of you,” Whitmer said during a news conference Monday, noting that peak retail season is still a few weeks away.
“Right now, my immediate concern is trying to keep everyone in Michigan safe.”
Whitmer said she understands the frustration over social distancing rules.
“It’s OK to be frustrated, it’s OK to be angry, and if it makes you feel better to direct it at me, that’s OK too, I’ve got thick skin,” Whitmer said.
‘Confusion all over the place’
But for some retailers, the rules are still muddy.
“There’s just confusion all over the place,” said Meegan Holland, spokesperson for the Michigan Retailers Association.
The executive order says all stores more than 50,000 square feet must close sections selling carpeting, flooring, furniture, plants and gardening supplies, and paint, to encourage social distancing and prevent shoppers from crowding aisles.
The order says stores of less than 50,000 square feet should limit the number of people to 25 percent of occupancy, but doesn’t explicitly mention gardening supplies.
But Holland said the state Department of Agriculture told her group that garden supplies shouldn’t be sold anywhere, even in small stores.
She said her group’s leaders originally thought smaller hardware stores — which are deemed essential — would be allowed to sell paint and other supplies banned from bigger stores. But guidance in the executive order FAQ states critical businesses can’t conduct non-essential business, which Holland said the group has taken to mean small stores can’t sell paint supplies either.
“We understand why any emergency like this is bound to cause confusion. This is a first-ever experience for all of us,” Holland said, adding that, without clarity from the governor’s office, local law enforcement has to interpret the rules.
The Michigan Department of Agriculture directed Bridge to the governor’s office when asked for clarification of rules for retailers.
In an email to Bridge, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown wrote: “While the order places certain limits on how goods are sold at stores 50,000 square feet or more, it does not ban Michiganders from buying any item.”
Glei and Holland both argued there are ways to sell these supplies safely through contactless curbside delivery and said they feared the measures were pushing business to online, out-of-state stores such as Amazon.
Attack on Betsy DeVos
Their sentiments were echoed by others on social media over the weekend, some of whom shared false claims that flags, car seats, bug spray and other items were also banned under the order.
Republican leaders in the state House and Senate have urged their constituents to call the governor with their concerns, arguing the restrictions place an undue burden on the economy, particularly in outstate areas with few confirmed coronavirus cases.
“OUR Governor IS DESTROYING OUR HEALTH BY KILLING OUR LIVELIHOODS!,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey wrote on Facebook Friday.
Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield also criticized the new order on Twitter: “We can ensure safety and be reasonable. Let’s do both.”
The Michigan Conservative Coalition, an activist group, plans to protest Wednesday by driving their cars around the Capitol building and making noise to express frustrations with an order they say is from “power-hungry bureaucrats.”
On Monday, Whitmer claimed the rally was being organized with help from a group funded by the DeVos family, which includes the U.S. Secretary for Education Betsy DeVos. The DeVos family denies the accusation.
“I think it’s really inappropriate for a sitting member of the U.S. president’s cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor,” Whitmer said.
She questioned whether some of the “inaccurate information” online about the order is based on “political posturing.” Whitmer said her orders are intended to protect the public and prevent the virus from overwhelming rural areas whose hospital systems aren’t prepared for a rash of cases.
“They can’t afford for anyone to play fast and loose with the rules, and they can’t afford for us to make exceptions for certain parts of the state, because of course COVID-19 doesn’t observe county lines,” Whitmer said.
Until the latest order, Republican leaders had largely supported Whitmer’s policies during the pandemic.
Some Democrats said they think the fury over restrictions may have been fanned by speculation that Whitmer could be a favorite to run for vice president alongside Joe Biden.
“The questions [from constituents] are legitimate,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich of Flint. But “you can’t miss the point that as soon as the governor started being mentioned by others as a potential vice presidential nominee, partisanship started coming into the equation.”
He said top Democrats are still having “productive conversations” with Republican leaders “but that doesn’t mean partisanship [is] not happening too.”
A spokesperson for Shirkey declined to comment and a spokesperson for Chatfield did not respond to a message seeking comment Monday.
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