Michigan senator who got COVID didn’t wear a mask at anti-Whitmer event

Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, shown here in a blue short-sleeved shirt and brown hair, didn’t wear a mask, nor did most attendees at a July 18 event in Eaton Country to collect signatures for a petition drive to limit the emergency powers of Gretchen Whitmer and other Michigan governors. Less than two weeks later, he was diagnosed with COVID. Health officials say the event was not linked to a coronavirus outbreak. (Courtesy photo)

LANSING — A Michigan state senator who says he took "reasonable precautions" to protect against COVID-19 did not wear a mask at an outdoor petition drive attended by hundreds less than two weeks before he tested positive for the virus.

Public health officials have not linked any COVID-19 cases to the July 18 event at Sharp Park in Eaton County, where Sen. Tom Barrett was photographed talking and shaking hands with other maskless attendees. 

The Charlotte Republican, who tested positive for COVID-19 on July 31, was helping collect signatures for a petition drive to limit the kind of emergency powers Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has used to issue executive orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, including a mandate that residents wear face coverings in "crowded outdoor spaces."

At the time, Barrett said more than 580 people from 21 Michigan counties came to sign petitions despite “no paid advertising and only a couple of days’ notice.”

That was over the course of six hours, however. Photos obtained by Bridge show roughly two-dozen attendees at the event, only one of whom was wearing a mask. In one photo, Barrett shook hands with an elderly man despite social distancing rules  in effect at the time. 

Under a Whitmer order that took effect July 13, residents are required to wear masks in indoor public spaces and outdoors when they are "unable to consistently maintain a distance of six feet or more from individuals who are not members of their household."

The federal Centers for Disease Control does not differentiate between indoor or outdoor spaces but recommends "people wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult.”

Mark Fisk, spokesperson for the Keep Michigan Safe committee formed to oppose the petition drive, said his group has received "multiple reports" of circulators not wearing masks or practicing social distancing.

Fisk wished Barrett a speedy recovery but said it is "totally irresponsible to be gathering in groups without masks, shaking hands, sharing pens, swapping petitions and clipboards during a major pandemic where thousands of people have died."

Whitmer has also attended at least two large outdoor gatherings in recent months, prompting accusations of hypocrisy.  The governor wore a mask in each case but did not socially distance during a racial justice march in Highland Park on June 4. She also led a ceremonial inspection of more than 600 National Guard troops on July 31 at Camp Grayling in northern Michigan, where her orders allow for outdoor gatherings of up to 250 people.

Barrett, who is a member of the Michigan National Guard, was tested for COVID-19 during a routine screening for soldiers set to depart for training events. He got his results on Aug. 2 and announced them the same day, saying he'd tested positive "despite taking reasonable precautions" and did not have any significant symptoms. 

"I have done my best to make contact with those I have been around in the past couple weeks so that they may also seek medical advice," he said at the time. 

Barrett, who remained in home isolation as of Wednesday, declined to comment on his participation in the petition drive event or precautions he took there, saying he cannot discuss political activities because he is on active duty status with the National Guard. 

But personally, COVID-19 has been "a crazy disruption of my life and my family and the Army and everything," Barrett told Bridge.  

He had some mild fatigue and joint pain two days before his test, but that cleared up and he has never had any COVID-specific symptoms, he said. 

Barrett wore a mask in the Michigan Senate on July 23 and in committee hearings around that time, but his positive test prompted Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey to cancel the sessions over the last two weeks and encourage other lawmakers to seek testing. No other senators have tested positive since then, spokesperson Amber McCann said Tuesday. 

The Barry-Eaton District Health Department is not aware of any additional positive tests from people who attended the Sharp Park petition drive, which occurred 13 days before Barrett took his test, said Community Health Promotion Specialist Sarah Surna.

When someone tests positive for COVID-19, the health department typically investigates who they were in contact with the prior two days, not the prior two weeks, she said.

Barrett’s test prompted a local health investigation, but "I can't disclose very much information about that particular case to protect patient information," Surna said. "I can say that we followed protocol for case investigation and contact tracing processes to identify close contacts, and then follow up with those close contacts for 14 days while they remained under quarantine."

The incubation period for COVID-19 — the time between exposure and onset of symptoms — is typically five or six days but can last up to two weeks, according to the World Health Organization. A person can transmit the virus before showing any symptoms, and some people develop no symptoms at all.  

COVID-19 case counts have risen in Eaton County in recent weeks.  As of July 15, the local health department had confirmed 287 cases of COVID-19 in the nearly four months since its first known case in March. In the next 21 days, the county confirmed more than 100 additional cases, bringing its total to 389 by Aug. 5. At the same time, statewide case counts were also rising, climbing from an average of about 600 new cases a day in mid-July to more than 700 by the end of the month.

Anecdotally, "a lot" of recent Eaton County cases have been linked to social gatherings, like graduation parties, Surna said, "which really emphasizes the need for the public to be wearing masks, especially indoors where it’s crowded... and also outside where maintaining that six feet of distance isn't possible." 

Coronavirus transmission appears much less likely at outdoor gatherings, but there have been outbreaks linked to large outdoor events, including a mid-July sandbar party at Torch Lake in northern Michigan’s Antrim County. 

For the week ended July 31, health departments across the state were investigating 286 new and ongoing outbreak events, which are defined by evidence that someone with the virus spread it to at least one other person. 

Only four of those outbreaks were linked to outdoor "community exposure," according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The state health department is not aware of any outbreaks associated with anti-police brutality protests held across Michigan this summer following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minnesota, said spokesperson Bob Wheaton. 

Experts aren't sure why that's the case but have suggested that movement by marching protesters, masks and attempts at social distancing may have limited the potential spread.

While Whitmer has consistently worn a mask in public spaces and encouraged protesters to do the same, photos of the June 5 march she participated in showed some people near her were not wearing face coverings.

"Part of the frustration is there seems to be one set of rules for some people and then another set of rules whenever she dreams up an exemption, whether that exemption is a protest on a cause she associates herself with or an event that she feels is important enough to warrant her attendance," said Fred Wszolek, a spokesperson for Unlock Michigan.

The group’s petition would repeal a 1945 law Whitmer has used to unilaterally extend an ongoing state of emergency and require legislative approval after 28 days of an initial declaration. Organizers need to collect 340,047 valid signatures to advance the petition to the GOP-led Legislature, where leaders have said they'll take up the initiative if it reaches them.

Asked by Bridge if Unlock Michigan gives circulators any guidance on wearing masks, Wszolek said organizers encourage volunteers to "follow the law." 

"We focus primarily on training how to properly circulate petitions, because those rules are so meticulous,” he said. “They don't change every week. They don't vary from place to place."

Whitmer opponents have openly flouted mask, social distancing and crowd size rules at summer events across the state. In late July, police threatened to shut down a “Freedom Fest” rally in Grand Haven that drew a large crowd of maskless demonstrators, citing guidance provided by the Ottawa County Health Department. 

But an organizer with Stand Up Michigan, a grassroots group also circulating petitions, boasted on Facebook that they were still able to collect "thousands and thousands of signatures” at the event. The group plans another rally this month in Traverse City.

The anti-Whitmer groups have a right to circulate petitions but should do more to encourage safety, said Fisk, spokesman for the new committee to fight the petition. "These signing party events could easily become super spreader events where lives are put at risk.”

Unlock Michigan typically collects signatures at smaller outdoor events, some of which are conducted in a drive-thru format to minimize contact. Several GOP lawmakers have participated, and some small businesses have also made petitions available in their buildings.

Barrett, who sponsored legislation to repeal the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act and is a leading proponent of the petition drive, is one of Whitmer's fiercest critics in the Legislature – and that hasn't changed with his diagnosis. 

"Yes, I tested positive for COVID," Barrett wrote in an Aug. 3 Facebook post. "No, I do not believe that we should have unilateral control of State Government placed with one person. Principles don't change based on your day to day situation."


Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


David Waymire
Thu, 08/13/2020 - 3:35pm

President Trump sent to my house a postcard saying this was a national emergency and we should all wear masks and socially distance. Remember? He said we were at war. I guess some folks believe "at war" means "party on, Garth."

Thu, 08/13/2020 - 5:07pm

What a surprise that people aren't wearing masks to protest "tyrannical" mask requirements. Too bad it'll take them or someone close to them getting sick before they change their tune.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 08/13/2020 - 6:09pm

Hmmm, so the headline"

"Michigan senator who got COVID didn’t wear a mask at anti-Whitmer event"

Doesn't mesh with what was written not even two paragraphs down:

"Public health officials have not linked any COVID-19 cases to the July 18 event at Sharp Park in Eaton County, where Sen. Tom Barrett was photographed talking and shaking hands with other maskless attendees. "

And the point behind this was???

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 10:14am

It is just like the public agence will not connect trumps hate rallies to the spread of the virus!!!!
Tooo many lieing republicans in public offices!!!

Kevin Grand
Sun, 08/16/2020 - 11:19am

So, following your logic, Don, the attempted destruction of a federal courthouse in Seattle, the burning to the ground of a significant chunk of Minneapolis and the looting and rioting in Chicago will somehow not infect those involved because: Political ideology?

I call BS
Mon, 08/17/2020 - 10:03am

Yet, Kevin, you have no problem with these elected Republicans refusing to meet because their dumb reckless colleague chose to become a virus vector. We the Taxpayers have a problem with it. They refuse to meet online, refuse to meet in person, refuse to wear masks, refuse to socially distance. Yet they demand to be PAID by US.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 08/17/2020 - 3:13pm

Um, I said this where?

Re-read my comments in the other story again.

Thu, 08/13/2020 - 6:48pm

Quit worrying about the wrong thing, i.e. emergency orders that are enacted to keep us safe,and start acting like a responsilbe human being - if that is possible. This kind of behavior is rampant. I know someone whose husband was diagnosed with COVID and she went to a huge indoor wedding the day after they found this out. She should be criminally sued.

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 5:20pm

Yes, and other people who were around positive people go around while waiting for their test results, sometimes lying or hiding their potential risk from unsuspecting other people around them. It's sickening.

Just Facts
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 7:58pm

Other's rights don't end where your fear begins.
The influenza has killed 20 times more children during this "pandemic" than coronavirus has.
Take your messed up emotions and belief of polticians and the media instead of real science, and stick it where the sun doesn't shine.
FYI, lawsuits are a civil matter, not a criminal matter. I understand that someone in your mental state wouldn't understand that, but I felt it necessary to point out.

Thu, 08/13/2020 - 9:51pm

Time and time again we see it's all just a hoax/joke, until it's not.

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 5:00am

The people who think this is a hoax, who think we need to develop herd immunity, who only care about the economy, have not had a loved one suffer or die, before his or her time, from covid19. We see the way the GOP legislature handles its own business or lack thereof based on its own perceived level of personal threat. They, like the president, are incapable of feeling empathy and thinking about others, what others are going through. They only want to please their lobbyists and themselves. They vociferously peddle conspiracy theories to stay in power as their power slips away. Thank God we will now be able to soften the blow of decades of GOP gerrymandering. There may be some hope.

Marlene Augst
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 7:49am

This article takes the stance he got from the petition drive h attended, when in fact THE SCIENCE AND DATA shows that was unlikely, being he's been all over the State he could have picked it up anytime. And like the VAST MAJORITY, this virus GAVE HIM NO SYMPTOMS. Because this virus is NOTHING TO THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE POPULATION. Being obese, diabetic or having hypertension is the biggest chronic health issue causing complications and people with those issues should be taking precautions. The rest should work towards herd Immunity.

Cee Cie
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 11:07am

Check out how well Herd Immunity worked for Sweden, the only country to try it. It didn't. It was a catastrophe. Do your research before you spout off about scientific principals.

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 12:07pm

Actually it did. They have about the same population as Michigan and as of this week had lezs deaths than we do. Their case numbers are dropping too. The average person to get this disease and die from it is 78. The average age of life expectancy? 78. There have been 45 deaths of children 19 and under. On average the flu kills about 200 or more children every year. Do I think this virus is a hoax? No. I think we are taking measures that are way too extreme for the statistics that it has presented. Sweden again didn't take the measures we did and still had less deaths than we did here in Michigan. Wake up people we are veing manipulated.

Mon, 08/17/2020 - 9:24am

Sweden's GDP has fallen by more than neighboring countries. So not only does Sweden have a higher death rate than other European countries that did shut down but remaining open didn't even shield them from an economic downturn. Another point from the article below is now that neighboring countries have seen a decline in cases, they are able to ease some of the restrictions while Sweden's rules have remained the same and are therefore stricter than those of other nations in many respects.


The argument for "LoOk At SwEDeN!" falls apart when you actually LOOK at how Sweden is doing today, both in terms of deaths and economic impact.

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 5:22pm


Paul Jordan
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 1:48pm

The article does not say that he DIDN'T get it at the event, it only says that the authorities hadn't established that he had. These are not the same things--especially given the pathetic inability to trace contacts of people who've been infected!
I gather that Ms. Augst has missed the reports that, in fact, COVID-19 is as virulent as the 1918 flu, but we have better treatment techniques now so as many people aren't dying.
It is a total crap shoot regarding the degree of illness an infected person will experience. Even young people with no preexisting conditions can experience severe infections and even death. Having said that, if Ms. Augst is willing to sacrifice herself (or her loved ones) in the service of achieving herd immunity, perhaps she should go for it!

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 9:40am

Do we really have a place in government for these knuckle dragging, science denying Neanderthals ?

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 5:24pm

Yes! It's called the Michigan GOP legislature. Time to purge that body with scientists put in their place.

Cee Cie
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 11:01am

All of these politicians need to follow the mask & social distancing rules at all times...no exceptions. When they were elected to office, these politicians agreed to be leaders. Do your job politicians! Set a good example for the citizens you represent! It doesn't matter with which party you associate. This is a fight for our country's well-being, not a political fight (at least it should not be turned into one).

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 11:47am

My question is this - the bellyaching about the 1945 law seemed to come up after the governor extended the emergency order after the first expiration. At that point, anecdotally, it seemed there was general upset about the lockdown and we were still in the early stages of what proved to be the beginning of the pandemic ramping up.
So, had the governor not been able to extend the emergency order around mid April when the first expired, would the legislature have approved extending it? My gut impression is that they would have not, the Republican-led legislature would have hemmed and hawed, not made any action and pretended the pandemic wasn't a problem.

Nobody questions emergency orders during hurricanes, and the pandemic is unprecedented. I would feel better about this knee-jerk reaction to curb what I view as necessary powers, if I had confidence that the current majority legislature wouldn't screw it up. I fully believe that Michigan is in the good position it is relative to many other states because of the governors actions; can you honestly say without those actions had we needed legislative approval of everything we would be in the same position? Can you honestly say we would be in a better position?

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 5:27pm

To all the whiny Republicans in Michigan, I say go take an extended vacation in Florida!

GOP Wink Wink
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 5:16pm

I'd do the same thing, if I wanted a two-week vacation on the taxpayer's dime.

Reality Check
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 1:34pm

Every scientific study regarding masks shows that use by the general public is pointless, and at best, has no effect - But more likely will serve to increase the spread of a virus as the public does not use the masks in a purely sterile manner.
This senator has clearly read all of these studies, and also observed that the infection rates in countries like Sweden or Denmark who have chosen NOT to implement these masks mandates have the same infection rates as those who have.
Stop spreading misinformation, bridge. "Politician" and "Media" have nothing to do with "Science".