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Gov. Whitmer, Midwest governors team up on plans to reopen state economies

April 22 update: Michigan Gov. Whitmer wants to extend stay-home order past May 1
April 17 update: Whitmer to begin laying out economic plan next week

LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is teaming up with other Midwest governors to develop a regional plan for reopening state economies shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The bipartisan team includes fellow Democrats Tony Evers of Wisconsin, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Andy Beshear of Kentucky, along with Republican Govs. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Eric Holcomb of Indiana. 

In a joint statement, the governors made clear their partnership does not mean each state will open its economy at the same time, or that each state will take the same steps. But phasing in sectors of the economy will be “most effective when we work together as a region,” they said. 

“We recognize that our economies are all reliant on each other, and we must work together to safely reopen them so hardworking people can get back to work and businesses can get back on their feet,” they said.

Later Thursday, President Donald Trump released to the states a recommended blueprint for “opening up America again.” The White House is proposing a three-phase process to restart state economies after each 14-day period in which there is a downward trajectory of cases, symptoms and hospital admissions. But it's leaving final decisions up to governors.

Under the first phase of the Trump plan, states or regions would continue to restrict non-essential travel but allow additional employers to begin calling workers back to the job. Schools and bars would remain closed, while movie theaters and sporting venues could only operate with strict social distancing protocols. By phase three, if there is no coronavirus rebound, businesses could operate all worksites without restrictions, although the White House would still recommend social distancing at large venues, extra hygiene at nursing homes and sanitation protocols at gyms. 

The Midwest team announced Thursday is the latest collaboration among governors, some of whom have complained about a lack of coordinated response to the global pandemic at the federal level. Two weeks ago, Whitmer revealed that Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois had formed a buying consortium in an attempt to obtain more personal protection equipment for medical providers.

“We’ve been working together as a geography for quite a bit,” Whitmer said April 6. 

The regional economic planning comes amid growing backlash over stay-at-home orders issued by Whitmer and other governors, including Wednesday protests in Michigan and Ohio, along with a Pennsylvania state Senate vote to partially end that state’s lockdown. 

Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan and a former lieutenant governor, said the idea of Midwest states working together on economic reopening plans “makes a lot of sense.”

Acting together would provide “a lot of comfort” to border community businesses in lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula who are concerned they could be disadvantaged if Michgian moves slower than neighboring states, said Calley, a Republican.  

It’s also a “smart approach” from a disease control standpoint, he suggested, noting the “integrated nature” of border states and citizen movement between them.  

Michigan has been among the hardest hit states by the public health crisis and ensuing economic crisis.  As of Thursday, Michigan had reported 29,263 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 2,093 related deaths. The state also processed more than 1 million unemployment claims over the past four weeks. 

Whitmer and other Midwest governors, in their joint statement, identified four factors they will use to guide their decision making process on when to reopen their economies: 

  • Sustained control of the rate of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations 
  • Enhanced ability to test and trace the spread of the virus 
  • Sufficient health care capacity to handle a resurgence of cases 
  • And best practices for social distancing in the workplace

Those factors nearly mirror criteria Whitmer outlined in the extended and expanded stay-at-home order she issued last week, which sparked criticism from Republican legislators, conservative and business groups urging her to loosen restrictions in certain regions or sectors. 

The governors will make decisions based on “facts, science” and recommendations from experts in health care, business, labor and education, the Midwest governors said in the statement. “Our number one priority when analyzing when best to reopen our economy is the health and safety of our citizens.”

Michigan Senate Republicans on Thursday presented with Whitmer their own ideas to restart the economy, jumping out ahead of a bipartisan workgroup established for that same purpose last week by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. 

They envision a five-phase process, starting with re-opening of some businesses considered critical under a broader federal guidance Whitmer did not adopt, along with companies whose employees have “lower exposure risk” and could stay six feet apart or wear personal protective equipment.

Under the Senate GOP plan, sports areas and concert venues that attract large crowds could not open to the public until there is no active spread of the coronavirus for 30 days or until a vaccine has been available for 30 days, which may not happen any time soon.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, had predicted it could take 12 to 18 months to develop a vaccine but said this week it may be possible to “shave a couple months off that” timeline.


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