Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended Michigan’s state of emergency through Sept. 4, citing growing case numbers and the looming challenge of children returning to school in the fall.
It’s the fifth time Whitmer has extended the state of emergency since it was first declared on March 10, shortly after the first two cases of the new coronavirus were discovered in Michigan. The latest extension was set to expire Tuesday.
The state of emergency gives the governor the power to issue executive orders intended to protect against the disease, such as the requirement for people to wear masks in public and, earlier this year, the requirement to stay at home unless absolutely necessary. She has issued 163 executive orders since the first declaration of emergency in March.
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“We are in a crucial time in our fight against COVID-19, and we must do everything we can to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and the brave men and women on the front lines of this crisis from a second wave,” Whitmer said in a statement announcing the extension Friday.
“I will continue to use every tool at my disposal to protect Michiganders from the spread of this virus. I want to remind everyone in Michigan to wear a mask, practice safe physical distancing, and do everything in your power to fight COVID-19.”
Whitmer noted in the statement that every region in Michigan has seen increases in cases over the last several weeks. While the statewide average number of cases has declined in the last week, cases have been largely rising in Michigan since mid-June, when the stay-at-home order ended and many businesses were allowed to reopen.
Whitmer also cited an increased positive test rate from a low of 2 percent in June to 3.6 percent on Friday. That number is still low — the nationwide positivity rate is 9 percent and the World Health Organization advised rate is lower than 5 percent. As of Friday, 86,191 Michiganders have been diagnosed with coronavirus and 6,247 people are confirmed to have died from it.
“Though local health departments have some limited capacity to respond to cases as they arise within their jurisdictions, state emergency operations are necessary to bring this pandemic under control in Michigan and to build and maintain infrastructure to stop the spread of COVID-19, trace infections, and quickly direct additional resources to hot-spots as they emerge,” the governor’s office said in a statement.
If Whitmer’s order remains in place through Sept. 4, that would mark nearly 26 weeks under a state of emergency. The vast majority of that time has been without the consent of the Republican-led state Legislature, which is challenging Whitmer’s legal ability to unilaterally extend her powers without lawmakers’ input.
Under a 1976 law, Whitmer is required to seek legislative approval to extend an emergency declaration past 28 days. But when the Legislature rejected her request for a second extension in May, Whitmer extended the emergency anyway under a 1945 law that does not require lawmakers’ sign-off.
The Legislature then sued Whitmer in a case that remains unresolved and promises to have a sweeping impact on the state government and its handling of the pandemic. A Court of Claims judge sided with Whitmer in May, but the decision has been appealed. Lawyers argued the case before the Court of Appeals on Tuesday and a decision is expected by the end of the month. It is likely to go to the state Supreme Court.
Amber McCann, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, told Bridge via email Friday that he has not had any further conversations with the governor about her extensions of emergency declarations. “He awaits a ruling from the courts,” she said.
Meanwhile, a petition circulated by a group called Unlock Michigan seeks to repeal the 1945 law that’s the basis of Whitmer’s powers. It’s backed by Republican leaders including Shirkey and is already gaining steam: A spokesperson for the group told Bridge it collected more than 100,000 valid signatures in the first three weeks of circulating petitions.
The odds of gathering enough support for a vote on repeal seem to be in their favor.
A new statewide poll conducted by EPIC-MRA for Bridge Michigan indicates that 43 percent of Michiganders support repealing the law. While most people surveyed are against repeal (that is, they support the current emergency powers held by Whitmer), the level of dissent suggests the group may obtain valid signatures from the roughly 8 percent of voters needed.
The group must collect 340,047 valid signatures to send the question to the Legislature, which would then have 40 days to approve or send it to the ballot to go before voters. Because both legislative chambers are in Republican hands, there is a credible chance GOP lawmakers will be able to narrow the governor’s emergency powers, despite statewide sentiment against such an action.
Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield wrote on Facebook in July that he is “supportive of any effort to curtail further abuses of power. And so if the initiative is presented to the Legislature, I will support it.”
Despite support from GOP leadership, it’s unclear how many lawmakers up for re-election would approve it during a competitive election season.