Whitmer: I back Biden vaccine mandate. Critics: That’s another flip-flop
LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday defended her resistance to COVID-19 restrictions but praised President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate, predicting the omicron variant will mean “tough” times.
The state is preparing to comply with the federal vaccine or weekly testing mandate for large employers, which is “about saving lives” and “getting more people vaccinated,” Whitmer said in a year-end Zoom roundtable with reporters.
“If we're successful on those fronts, it's going to be to everyone's benefit.”
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The first-term Democrat’s public support came two weeks after she said the federal mandate could be “a problem” for Michigan employers, including the state government.
Unlike more than 20 states, Michigan doesn’t have a mandate for state employees..
“We’re going to lose state employees," Whitmer told rural business owners in early December.
On Wednesday, Whitmer said that wasn’t intended as a criticism of Biden, but a recognition of reality for a state government that employs nearly 50,000 people.
“We’ve got a chunk of people that have not been vaccinated and may not ever get vaccinated,” Whitmer said. “What does that mean for our ability to deliver services to the people of our state? That’s a concern that I have.”
Critics accused Whitmer of a flip-flop.
The governor “spent most of the pandemic issuing mandates, but when the political winds shifted, she opposed them,” Tori Sachs, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund conservative advocacy group, said in a statement.
“Now, suddenly, she’s back on the mandate bandwagon. What changed? What political bargain did she strike with (Biden) to justify endorsing this reckless mandate over her own concerns that it would negatively affect thousands of Michigan businesses and 48,000 employees of the state government?”
A federal appeals court on Friday reinstated the Biden vaccine mandate, but opponents have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the mandate remains in place, the federal government is expected to begin enforcement Jan. 10 but won’t issue citations for testing protocol violations until Feb. 9, so long as employers are making a “good faith” effort to comply.
Whitmer was among the nation’s most aggressive governors early in the pandemic, issuing stay-home and government shutdown orders in 2020 after the COVID-19 virus was first detected in Michigan.
But Whitmer has taken a very different approach in 2021 as vaccines became widely available.
She ended all statewide restrictions this summer and has resisted new safety measures since then despite a recent surge in COVID cases that has again overwhelmed Michigan hospitals.
In the process, Whitmer has faced criticism from Republicans and liberals alike, who argue she has either done too much or too little to fight the virus.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday, the governor denied that political calculations, partisan pressure or even an alleged kidnapping plot last year drove her decision to abandon statewide restrictions in 2021.
“That's total, total baloney,” she said. “If I was driven by politics, I never would have been able to make a single decision, because every decision has a political downside.”
Instead, the governor reiterated her position that the availability of vaccines, booster shots and the newly approved Pfizer treatment pill give Michiganders a chance to stay safe without the need for “blunt tools” like government shutdowns.
“There’s no evidence” that closing sectors of the economy again “is going to dramatically change the decision of this small but still serious group of people that have not yet been vaccinated,” the governor said, describing the 43 percent of eligible Michiganders who aren’t fully vaccinated.
“That's who's filling up our hospitals. That is who continues to be a host to a virus that will continue to mutate. And that's where our focus has to be.”
With the omicron virus now spreading in Michigan, Whitmer predicted “it is going to be tough here” over the next four to six weeks. And while she’s not planning any new restrictions, the governor said she is not ruling it out in the future.
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