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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan Gov. Whitmer calls Biden’s vaccine mandate ‘a problem’ for businesses

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer served as co-chair of President Joe Biden’s campaign in 2020 but now is distancing herself from his vaccine mandate. (Courtesy photo)

Jan, 13, 2022: High Court blocks COVID vaccine mandate for business, allows in healthcare
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Dec. 22, 2021: Whitmer: I back Biden vaccine mandate. Critics: That’s another flip-flop
Dec. 20, 2021: Michigan companies await final legal verdict on Biden vaccine mandate

LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is voicing concern over a federal vaccine mandate proposed by President Joe Biden, appearing to break rank with her fellow Democrat in a high-stakes debate over the governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Speaking Monday with local business owners in rural mid-Michigan, Whitmer expressed sympathy for employers who would be required to comply with Biden's vaccine mandate if it overcomes legal roadblocks that have so far delayed implementation. 

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State government is "an employer too," Whitmer said during a stop in Howard City, according to a report by the Greenville Daily News. 

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"I know if that mandate happens, we’re going to lose state employees," the governor continued. "That’s why I haven’t proposed a (state) mandate. We have a lot of the same concerns...it’s going to be a problem for all of us."

Whitmer's office did not directly respond to follow-up questions from Bridge Michigan, which requested clarification on her comments and position on Biden's proposed mandate. Instead, spokesperson Bobby Leddy sent a broad statement.

“Our top priority remains slowing the spread of COVID-19 so that businesses can keep their doors open, schools can keep students in classrooms, and the state can continue our strong economic progress,” Leddy said.

“While the federal government's vaccine rule is currently halted, Gov. Whitmer continues to urge Michiganders to receive one of the safe and effective vaccines because this is the best way for Michiganders to protect themselves and keep our economy growing.”

Whitmer, a first-term Democrat, is a top ally of Biden, serving as the national co-chair of both his campaign and inauguration. She issued aggressive business shutdown orders early in the pandemic but has resisted reimposing any government restrictions during the state’s latest COVID-19 surge. 

As of Monday, Michigan ranked first in the nation for COVID-related hospitalizations, first in test positivity rate and fourth for total case rate, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

The federal vaccine mandate, which is mired in legal limbo, would require private companies with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are vaccinated or submit weekly testing results by Jan. 4. 

A second vaccine mandate is directed at companies that work under federal contracts, including medical systems that bill Medicare and Medicaid and universities that accept federal research funding. 

Between the two mandates, announced by Biden on Set. 8, more than 40 percent of Michigan’s workforce, some 2 million workers, were expecting to be under some form of a mandate. 

The mandates are divisive, as polls show support from a narrow majority — 52 to 55 percent — while 40 percent to 47 percent oppose, according to polls in November and December

Michigan business groups have asked the Biden administration to reconsider the policy, saying that they come as employers are struggling to hire enough workers and that the government should not be setting vaccination policy for employers.

Many are celebrating Whitmer’s recent comments. 

"Joe Biden didn't listen/doesn’t care," Michigan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rich Studley wrote Tuesday on Twitter. "The governor heard us & is listening."

Many business groups expected the lawsuits to pause the federal mandates, but some of their members still put the deadlines into place, and faced challenges from workers.

“We had a number of members (that) …. lost employees because some folks just aren't going to get vaccinated,” John Walsh, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association told Bridge. “Police and fire and health care workers have already proven that across the nation.”

Michigan's Republican-led Legislature is backing a multi-state lawsuit that has so far blocked the mandate. In court filings last month, attorneys for the Michigan House and Senate called the policy an "unprecedented intrusion into the sovereign police power historically reserved to the state."

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With the federal mandate in limbo, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio on Monday announced what his office called the “first-in-nation vaccination mandate” for workers and customers at indoor dining, fitness, entertainment and performance venues.

Whitmer has made clear she does not intend to issue a state-level mandate for Michigan or its 44,000 state employees. Statewide, 61.5 percent of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Whitmer has said the availability of vaccines means Michigan has “the tools” it needs to fight the pandemic. 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which retains the authority to issue epidemic orders should Whitmer request them, reported Monday that 16,590 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed over the weekend. 

The Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative advocacy group that criticized Whitmer when she issued aggressive regulations early in the pandemic, on Tuesday accused the governor of a "flip flip" on COVID policy. 

“Gretchen Whitmer has only been interested in one kind of science – the political kind,” executive director Tori Sachs said in a statement, noting that the governor is up for re-election next year. 

“Whitmer had no problem locking Michigan workers out of their jobs and imposing nonsensical mandates while she campaigned for Joe Biden last year."

Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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