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Gretchen Whitmer COVID report card: Lives saved, economy hurt, test scores fall

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week she may have done some things differently during the pandemic, but she wouldn’t say what. Her Republican opponent, Tudor Dixon, has said the governor’s orders were cruel but hasn’t elaborated what specifically she would have changed. (Courtesy photo)
  • Michigan’s stay-at-home order lasted longer than almost all other states
  • The impact on business and schools was enormous, as the state lost 1 million jobs and test scores plunged
  • Whitmer said her priority was saving lives. Studies show her orders did so, especially compared to states with fewer restrictions

Michigan was hit hard and early by the coronavirus pandemic. And Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s response could help determine whether she’s elected to another four years on Nov. 8.

As much as any other issue, from inflation to abortion, Whitmer’s performance during the pandemic is a key campaign issue in her re-election bid against Republican challenger Tudor Dixon.

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Whitmer says she made difficult calls to close businesses and schools to keep Michigan safe.

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“We make tough decisions because lives are on the line,” Whitmer said during last week’s debate. “Studies have shown that our actions have saved thousands of lives.”

Dixon says Whitmer’s orders were too severe, hurting both the economy and the state’s K-12 students.

“She destroyed our small business community, stole years of schooling from our kids and forced hard-working Michiganders to follow her intrusive orders that picked winners and losers,” Dixon said in a statement to Bridge Michigan.

A Bridge Michigan analysis finds that both candidates have evidence to support parts of their arguments. 

There are multiple studies suggesting Michigan COVID-19 orders prevented deaths, but the cost — in the state as elsewhere — was a damaged economy and substantial learning loss.

Michigan and other northeast states were among those that had the most COVID-19 cases in the first few months of the pandemic, before protocols were developed to treat the disease that eventually killed more than 35,000 in Michigan and 6.5 million worldwide.

Now, more than two years later, both sides have occasionally engaged in revisionist history. 

Whitmer’ first TV ad of the campaign says she “made it a priority to get kids back in class.” 

It doesn’t mention that Michigan schools stayed remote far longer than many other states, and Whitmer didn’t urge schools to reopen until March 2021. 

At last week’s debate, Whitmer acknowledged she would have done some things differently with the benefit of hindsight, but did not elaborate.

Dixon has been relentless in her criticism of Whitmer’s orders, but has issued only broad statements about what she would have changed, telling Bridge there would have been “no restrictions and mandates that were outright confusing and cruel.”

Here’s a look at what Whitmer did — and didn’t — do, how it compares with peers in other states and how that impacted Michigan. 

Business

What Whitmer did

As the pandemic rapidly unfolded in March 2020, Whitmer joined governors nationwide in closing K-12 schools and putting the brakes on the economy.

Whitmer’s first “stay-home” order began March 24, prohibiting all but essential businesses from operating in-person and calling on people to not leave their houses except for essential trips, like grocery shopping or the pharmacy.

That initial order lasted 73 days. 

Restrictions on businesses remained for many more months, with employers ordered to allow remote work if possible until June 2021. Rules on employee safety, which called for masks, social distancing, health screenings and more, began in the autumn 2020 and weren’t relaxed until May 2021. 

For much of the first year of the pandemic, indoor dining at the state’s more than 16,500 bars and restaurants was forbidden or limited to 50 percent capacity.

Whitmer’s orders initially adhered to the federal definition of “essential” work. Whitmer’s administration interpreted those rules to mean stores had to close paint, gardening and flooring aisles. Some outdoor work, like landscaping, couldn’t be done.

Residents could not travel to second homes or buy a car in person. They could go to church and buy a bottle of liquor, but couldn’t return the bottles for the deposit.

When the state reopened in July 2020, the governor ordered that the public was required to wear masks in public spaces. That order was lifted in June 2021.

After the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in October 2020 that Whitmer couldn’t unilaterally issue emergency orders, the state Department of Health and Human Services, whose director is appointed by the governor, began issuing similar orders.

In mid-November 2020, as new coronavirus cases were rapidly rising, Whitmer and Robert Gordon, then-state health director, announced a new “pause” on indoor dining at bars and restaurants to combat skyrocketing cases (there were other restrictions, like a prohibition on in-person classes for high-school students).

Limited in-door dining was allowed beginning in February 2021. But capacity limits didn’t rise to 50 percent until June 1, 2021, and to 100 percent until July 1.

Once vaccines were approved, Whitmer rolled out her “Vacc to Normal” plan in April 2021 that gradually eased restrictions as vaccination rates increased.

That plan was shelved when vaccination rates in Michigan rose slower than other states. Whitmer lifted remaining restrictions on July 1, 2021.

What other states did

Whitmer’s stay-home order lasted longer than almost all states.

Though most states in the nation adopted stay-home orders, only Oregon, New Jersey, California and New Hampshire had longer ones.

Among neighboring states, Illinois’ stay-home order lasted 70 days, followed by Ohio, 68, and Wisconsin, 62. Indiana had the shortest order, 37 days, nearly half of Michigan.

Many states took similar actions regarding schools and masks but some, typically led by Republican governors, reacted differently, a sign of the deeply polarized atmosphere that had then-President Donald Trump tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” in April 2020.

For instance, Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine ordered a mask mandate for businesses when they were set to reopen in May 2020. 

But DeWine reversed himself the next day, turning the mandate into a recommendation.

“Within the last 24 hours it’s really become clear to me that a mandatory mask requirement … for people who are shopping, going into a retail business is offensive to some of our fellow Ohioans,” DeWine said.

At the time, the Whitmer administration adopted its “pause” in wake of a fall surge of cases in November 2020, six other states had also closed restaurants and bars while another 20 adopted new restrictions. 

People in 22 other states could still enjoy dine-in service in December 2020. 

The fallout

There is little argument about what happened in Michigan. 

It lost over 1 million jobs; the jobless rate hit 23 percent before rapidly declining. Only Nevada, a state that relies heavily on tourism, an industry crushed by the pandemic, had a higher jobless rate.

 

An estimated 3,000 restaurants closed in Michigan as of April 2021.

As the economy reopened, Michigan workers were more reluctant to return to work than other states. The state’s labor force participation rate — a measure of how many people are actively working or seeking work — was the lowest in the region as more people either retired or decided to stay on the employment sidelines, slowing the state’s economic recovery. 

Unemployment benefits made it easier to stay out of work. About 3.5 million Michigan workers applied for benefits at some point during the pandemic, receiving another $600 per week in federal funds through July 2020.

From then until September 2021, the extra federal jobless benefits were lowered to $300 a week.

But by summer of 2021, 25 states opted out of those extended benefits. Michigan, however, remained in the program until it expired on Sept. 6, 2021.

An estimated 60.2 percent of working-age adults are in the labor force in August, compared to 62.4 percent nationally. Thirty-nine states have higher rates, including Minnesota at 68 percent.

By August 2022, the nation had recovered all of the jobs lost from the pandemic and then some, with total jobs rising 1.6 percent since February 2020.

In Michigan, there are still fewer jobs: it has recovered 98.1 percent of the jobs that existed in February 2020, the worst among neighboring states and 43rd in the nation.

Since Michigan’s job losses hit bottom in April 2020, the state has gained 957,300 jobs and its 3.1 percent growth rate over the past year ranked 18th nationally and trailed only Illinois among neighboring states. 

Nursing homes

What Whitmer did

The pandemic hit older residents the hardest: Those 70 and older have comprised over 65 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Michigan, despite making up just 11.5 percent of the state’s population.

When the pandemic hit, health experts knew that those in nursing homes were the most vulnerable: many are in poorer health, live in close quarters and are cared for by staffers who often lacked protective gear.

That’s why most states’ governors quickly sought to protect nursing home residents. In Michigan, Whitmer followed the proposed guidelines from the federal government and banned visitation at skilled nursing facilities.

 

That ban was not lifted until March 2021 after a massive push to vaccinate long-term care residents and staff. 

Dixon has said her grandmother died alone in a nursing home, in November 2020, because of the visitation ban, as her “spirit was crushed and her care at the nursing facility deteriorated once they knew no one was watching.”

Whitmer also ordered, in April 2020, that nursing homes admit patients recovering from COVID-19 following hospital stays. After complaints from legislators upset that those patients could infect healthy residents in the same facilities, the state changed that rule in June 2020, telling facilities they would only be required to accept those patients if they had a dedicated COVID-19 wing. 

The order was controversial, but it was never actually enforced, according to both the Whitmer administration and officials from the Health Care Association of Michigan, which represents nursing homes across the state.

If nursing homes did not have a designated wing, COVID patients could be sent to other nursing homes that had separate units and agreed to serve as "regional hubs" for the state.

What other states did

In the region, Ohio instituted a nursing home visitation ban but other states, including Indiana and Wisconsin, only recommended them. Illinois recommended restrictions.

Nationwide, 25 states banned visitations.

As for daily staff screenings, Illinois required them but Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin recommended them. 

Nationwide, 17 other states required daily screenings.

The fallout

Long-term care facilities nationwide quickly became the epicenter of the worst outbreaks. In the first few months of the pandemic, they accounted for a third of the nearly 5,800 of the state's COVID-19 deaths in Michigan.

Yet, there were other very real costs. Advocates for long-term care residents said the ban on visitations, designed to save lives, created other “social isolation” problems, including depression, anxiety and worsening dementia. 

And in Michigan, as deaths rose, Republican and Democratic legislators attacked the use of regional hubs and families of patients were upset they could not see loved ones because of the ban on visits which wasn’t lifted until mass vaccinations at nursing homes, which led to an abrupt drop in COVID-19 cases and deaths. 

A study from the independent The Center for Health and Research Transformation at the University of Michigan concluded that the “hub” strategy — adopted by other states such as Florida — performed well in Michigan. The study was independent of the state and funded by nonprofit Michigan Health Endowment Fund, which works to “improve the health and wellness of Michigan residents while reducing healthcare costs.”

The study found that deaths among residents in hub nursing homes were 20 percent of residents, compared to 26 percent in non-hub nursing homes. 

Overall, more than 3,700 nursing home residents died in Michigan in 2020, and another 949 in 2021 and 772 so far in 2021, according to state records

Another 1,800 have died in homes for the aged and adult foster care since 2020.

Whitmer and her administration were also accused of undercounting deaths. 

A report from the state auditor general found 42 percent more deaths in long-term care facilities. But Auditor General Doug Ringler said it would be “unfair” to call the state’s tally an undercount because he said his office and the state used different counting methods.

Ringler’s office counted 8,061 deaths in long-term care facilities through July 2, 2021. The state had said there were 5,675.

Schools

What Whitmer did

One of the first things Whitmer did was close K-12 schools to in-person learning. Students finished the year learning remotely.

The fear: students would spread the virus among themselves and, though far less likely to get seriously ill, they could transmit it to teachers and staff and to their families.

At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, classes resumed, but students and staff were required to wear masks. A deal struck between legislators and Whitmer allowed districts to make local decisions on whether to remain remote or adopt a hybrid model with both in-person and remote learning.

Some House Republicans had sought to mandate that districts have an in-person option for K-5 students, but that was not part of the final plan.

Then during November 2020, as case counts rose, the state ordered all high schools to switch to remote learning through the winter break.

In January 2021, Whitmer “urged” schools to return in-person, even though it was only a recommendation since she and the Legislature had agreed months earlier that all decisions were local.

A handful of districts around the state, including Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, had made local decisions to remain closed to in-person instruction. 

Some stayed fully remote much of the 2020-21 school year.

As the 2021-22 school year began, the delta variant was sweeping the country and cases were rising rapidly. Though some states adopted mask mandates for students, Michigan did not. 

In signing a  $70 billion budget in September 2021, Whitmer also struck provisions within it that would have prohibited local school mask mandates. At the time, her spokesperson called the  “dangerous” and “anti-public health.”

Throughout the year, the state health department strongly recommended mask mandates. While Whitmer applauded counties and districts that adopted them, there were no statewide vaccine or mask mandates were adopted.

What other states did

Most states closed K-12 schools in the beginning of the pandemic through the end of the 2020-21 school year. 

But as the pandemic continued, state by state reactions differed dramatically.

Some states ordered — or tried to order — that districts make in-person schooling an option in the fall 2021. By most measures, Michigan schoolchildren learned remotely for longer than many other states:

  • 12 percent of Michigan schools were fully in-person in September 2020, compared to 79 percent of schools in Indiana and 57 percent in Ohio. At that time, 22 percent of Michigan schools were fully remote, and the rest were using a hybrid combination, records show.
  • 23 percent of Michigan schools were in-person, 28 percent were virtual, and the rest hybrid by the time Whitmer called on districts to resume in person. At that point, 76 percent of Indiana schools were fully in-person, as were 47 percent of Ohio districts.  In contract, in Florida, 96 percent of schools were fully in-person by the end of 2020.
  • 46 percent of schools were fully in-person by March 2021, Whitmer’s goal to return to in-classroom learning. Ten percent were fully remote, and 44 percent were hybrid.

Later, some states required students to wear masks and some required staff to get vaccinated. 

 

In October 2021, for instance, 18 states had mask mandates while seven states prohibited them altogether. Michigan did not require them but local districts could decide to adopt them and many did, with over half of the state’s students in districts with mask mandates.

The fallout

Student performance fell nationwide. From 2020 through 2022, the scores in reading and math for 9-year-olds fell to the lowest levels in decades.

Similar losses occurred in Michigan among third graders, with poor children faring even worse. And though some are recovering from those losses, it has not been enough to offset the losses, new data shows.

Many parents upset with COVID-19 mandates pulled their kids from the public schools — some to avoid in-person schooling and others to avoid mask mandates.

In the 2020-21 school year, enrollment in Michigan’s public schools fell by roughly 60,000 students, with many turning to private schools for in-person class and to homeschooling to avoid it. In 2021-22, an estimated 6,000 returned to public schools.

Studies showed that in schools in Arizona and across the nation, mask mandates led to fewer COVID-19 cases. 

In Michigan, researchers found that districts without mask mandates had higher rates of spread.

But research also has consistently shown that learning loss was more acute among students who went to school remotely, and they are also slower to catch up than peers.

Lives saved

No doubt, COVID orders hurt the economy and augmented learning loss.

But what price can you put on lives? 

Whitmer has consistently said she made her decisions to thwart the spread of disease, spare lives and limit the impact on hospitals.

It was the rationale for spending trillions of dollars nationwide on improved jobless benefits and forgivable business loans. 

Out-of-work employees got state jobless benefits plus $600 a week in federal unemployment assistance; thousands of Michigan companies secured over $22 billion in forgiven Payroll Protection Plan loans to offset business losses.

A study by a University of Michigan researcher estimated the lockdowns saved between 870,000-1.7 million lives in the U.S. during the first six months of the pandemic.

An early study suggested Whitmer’s actions saved as many as 68,000 lives; another U-M study estimates the November “pause” saved 2,000 lives. 

But other studies contest the effectiveness of the measures, saying many people chose to stay home and would have regardless of whether they were ordered too, minimizing the impact of stay-home orders.

At the time Whitmer ordered the initial stay-home order, the state had reported roughly 1,200 confirmed cases and 15 deaths. But subsequent testing showed there were nearly 10 times more cases and five times more deaths — 10,975 cases and 89 deaths — indicating COVID-19 was far more widespread than officially known.

And in those first four months, Michigan’s had the ninth-highest COVID-19 death rate, suffering 137 deaths per month per 1 million residents. But since then, the state ranks 20th, at 118 deaths per month per 1 million.

The toll in other states

Most of the states with higher death rates since June 2020 also had fewer restrictions. 

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In Florida, the death rate has been 130 deaths per 1 million residents per month since mid-2020, about 10 percent higher than Michigan’s, though there are many additional factors, including vaccine rates, weather and the health and age of the population (the median age of COVID-19 victims has been about 77 year old).

Ohio (116 monthly deaths per million) and Wisconsin (90) had similar restrictions initially, but fewer as the pandemic wore on. 

Illinois (97 monthly deaths per million) had similar restrictions. 

Indiana, which had a far shorter stay-home order and almost always had fewer restrictions, has had a worse death rate (120 monthly deaths per million) since June 2020.

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