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.
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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.
Social distancing is critical to stop the spread of COVID-19—unless you have a great photo op. And control. pic.twitter.com/uFyM6gBWaM— Rep. Lynn Afendoulis (@LynnAfendoulis) June 4, 2020
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."