LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday extended Michigan’s stay-at-home order through May 15 but eased some rules on business and recreation amid Republican pressure to rein in the coronavirus lockdown.
Whitmer’s new executive order authorizes what she called “lower-risk” businesses like landscapers and plant nurseries to resume operations, and it allows residents to return to outdoor activities like motor boating, golf and travel between residences.
The Democratic governor announced revisions hours before the Republican-led Senate voted to repeal a 1945 law she has cited as a source of emergency authority, challenging Whitmer’s ability to continue unilateral actions to fight the pandemic despite her promise to veto the measure.
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Whitmer called her new order the “preliminary stage of economic re-engagement” for Michigan, where nearly 1.2 million residents have filed for jobless claims in the last five weeks. She argued compliance with previous orders has slowed the virus and “saved lives” in Michigan, where more than 3,000 people have died from COVID-19.
The revised order allows any store that sells non-essential items to reopen for curbside pickup and product delivery. Big box stores can reopen paint, flooring and gardening sections that Whitmer had ordered closed on April 9.
Garden stores, nurseries, lawn care, pest control and landscaping companies that reopen must enforce social-distancing rules, and any businesses with in-person workers must provide employees with non-medical grade face masks.
“We will measure, we will collect data, we will continue to ramp up our testing and tracing, and we will make informed decisions in the coming days about potential further economic re-engagement,” Whitmer said. “We may have to be nimble enough to go backward on occasion.”
Beginning Monday, the new order will require residents to wear face coverings in enclosed spaces such as grocery stores if they can medically tolerate it, but those who do not won’t be subject to misdemeanor criminal penalties otherwise in place for willful violations of the order.
The new order allows residents to travel between multiple residences if they own more than one home in Michigan, but Whitmer “strongly” discouraged people from doing so “unless it is absolutely necessary.”
Hospitals in northern Michigan and other rural parts of the state are “simply not equipped to meet an influx of people who may bring or spread the virus,” she said, recommending that residents who do travel avoid local grocery stores during their visits.
“Staying home remains our best weapon to defeat this enemy and to stop the spread,” Whitmer said.
Michigan reported 1,350 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Friday, its highest single-day jump since April 14 as more aggressive testing efforts ramp up. To date, the state has confirmed 36,641 cases and 3,085 related deaths.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, warned that it could take as long as 18 months to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 and said there are still not “appropriate anti-viral” treatments for the infectious disease.
“Life in the foreseeable future will not go back exactly to what it was before COVID-19,” Khaldun said. “This is truly going to be a marathon and not a sprint.”
Dr. Mohammed Ariswala, president of the Michigan State Medical Society, said extending the stay-home order through May 15 “is the right decision at this time and one that will require all of us to continue practicing common sense and social distancing.”
In a statement, Ariswala said that limiting activities to slow the spread of COVID-19 remains “critically important for the health of patients, doctors, nurses and paramedics” who are battling the virus on the front lines.
GOP challenges Whitmer authority
Republican legislators, many of whom wore masks as they met in Lansing for the first time since April 7, called Whitmer’s new order an improvement over the prior version, which they and business groups had derided as overly broad.
Senate Republicans voted to repeal a 1945 law that Whitmer contends would give her authority for continued authority for unilateral action if the Legislature does not extend her emergency declaration beyond April 30. The action was largely symbolic, given Whitmer’s pledge to veto the measures, but sparked intense debate.
Republicans called the legislation necessary to rein in a governor they argued who is dangerously overstepping her authority and to restore a balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.
State Rep. Jim Lower, R-Greenville, called Whitmer’s new order “good progress.” But in a tweet, he said GOP lawmakers will not extend her authority without “additional revisions.”
This is good progress. However, we don't believe the governor has the authority to extend the order without legislative approval. In the history of MI all extensions have come from the legislature. In order to consider an extension we'll need to have additional revisions. https://t.co/EzUuiissGx— Jim Lower (@RepJimLower) April 24, 2020
Auto plants up in air, construction on hold
Whitmer’s new order does not address ongoing debate over when and how to reopen auto assembly plants.
Detroit automakers hope to ramp up facilities in early May, but United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble said Thursday he does not believe “the scientific data is conclusive that it is safe to have our members back in the workplace.”
Whitmer, who has been in regular communication with automotive industry and labor leaders, said there is “an incredible amount of work” being done to develop safety protocols and made clear she could issue additional guidance prior to May 15.
The new order does not adopt new federal guidelines expanding the definition of a “critical” worker allowed to stay on the job to include additional construction workers, gun shop employees and more.
Republican leaders had urged her to adopt that new guidance and have also encouraged her to adopt a regional approach to assess the need for continued business regulations. The White House also released guidance for states to reopen businesses in phases.
Bill Kinley, a developer based in Ann Arbor, had hoped that commercial construction would be allowed under the revised order. Kinley’s Praxis Properties is completing a 12-condominium building with half of the units pre-sold.
“We’d like to get them finished up and people moved in,” Kinley said.
Doing that, he said, would involve crews of up to two workers per unit, which Kinley said he believes would allow them to follow social distancing. It also means the project wouldn’t have to linger on the market at a time when sales have slowed dramatically.
“Right now we can’t show the others to future buyers,” Kinley said. “And we are hoping the shutdown doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the buyers that we do have.”
Whitmer is developing her own plans with a team led by DTE Chairman Gerry Anderson and former Henry Ford Health System CEO Nancy Schlichting.
Governors around the country are grappling with when and how to reopen economies they put on lockdown in an attempt to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Continued shortages of testing supplies have complicated efforts.
Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp this week announced aggressive plans to begin reopening his state’s economy, but he has faced backlash by prohibiting local officials from adopting any more or less restrictive measures for their own.
President Donald Trump, who has generally pushed to re-engage the economy nationwide, told reporters he thinks Kemp is opening some businesses “too soon” and said that “safety has to predominate.”
Georgia is allowing gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians, their respective schools, and massage therapists to re-open for “baseline operations.” By Monday, theaters and private social clubs can also reopen and restaurant dine-in services can resume.
Georgia is requiring businesses to take new precautions, including screening workers for fever and respiratory illness. In salons and spas, employees must wear face masks at all times and clients should do the same “to the extent possible while receiving services.”
In a Wednesday interview on MSNBC, Whitmer said Michigan businesses with “intimately public-facing services” like salons and fitness centers will likely be “some of the last things to come online when we do start to re-engage sectors of our economy.”
Bridge reporter Paula Gardner contributed to this report.
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