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Whitmer pleads for more COVID compliance. So far, Michigan isn’t listening

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Cell phone data suggest that more Michiganders are on the move again, despite pleas from health officials and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to stay socially distanced. (Shutterstock)
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Schools are still open. Sports are still being played. Restaurants were as busy over the weekend as they were in recent weeks.

Even so, Whitmer is holding fast to her recent position that she is not going to impose new economic restrictions, a stance that drew praise from a business leader. 

“To her credit, there has been a tremendous amount of pressure, among the media especially, to try and to push her into further lockdowns,” Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan and former lieutenant governor to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, said in a member Facebook event.

After politely suggesting last week that Michigan needed to do more, the director of the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention was more direct Monday, calling on the state to “close things down,” and flatly disputing the governor’s position that additional vaccines would see the state through this latest wave. 

Across Michigan, restaurants, schools and sports teams appeared to largely take a pass at following Whitmer’s recommendations. 

Many restaurants said “demand remained the same” for indoor dining over the weekend despite the governor’s request that diners switch to carryout, said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association. 

And most remained open over the weekend under existing rules that call for dining rooms to open at 50 percent capacity or 100 people, whichever is less, Winslow said. 

A few restaurants closed dining rooms voluntarily. But Winslow said that may have been to give employees a break as much as to control the virus, since many are struggling with staffing during the pandemic.

Michigan is in the midst of a one-state COVID-19 surge, despite the 5.1 million vaccines injected into the arms of its residents.

The state is averaging almost 6,500 new confirmed coronavirus cases a day. There were 4,167 people hospitalized with the virus Monday, up 9 percent just since Friday, and close to the peak hospitalizations during the fall surge — 4,326 on Nov. 30.

Whitmer has so far relied on a softer approach during the state’s third deadly COVID spike than what the CDC urges her to do. Instead, Whitmer is asking, but not mandating, that Michigan schools, businesses and residents do their part to tamp down virus spread.

Visiting a vaccination site at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti Monday, Whitmer renewed her call to residents to do their part.

She has repeatedly noted in recent days the new variable in her calculus to possible restrictions: the broad availability of vaccines. About 1 in 4 Michiganders 16 and over are now fully vaccinated, according to state data.

“I believe government's role is, when we can't take action to protect ourselves, the government must step (in) and that's where we were a year ago, that's where we were four months ago,” Whitmer said. “We’re in a different moment, every one of us has the ability and knowledge to do what it takes. It's on all of us to do it, and that's why we are imploring people: take this seriously. We don't want to see our kids getting COVID, bringing COVID home. 

“Dropping our guard, moving around, that’s what’s going to contribute to putting ourselves in jeopardy. So don’t do it.”

Yet the governor also acknowledged that a pandemic-weary state appears less inclined to take precautions than a year ago, when COVID-19 and its dangers were new.

That was apparent in the reaction — or lack of reaction — to her pleas. 

Michigan schools — which have been generally supportive of Whitmer’s efforts to control the spread of the virus over the past year — roundly ignored her most recent request.

Only a handful of school districts appeared to change student learning plans after Whitmer asked that they close classrooms for two weeks. Hamtramck Public Schools in Wayne County announced it would switch to fully remote learning until April 19 in response to Whitmer’s plea. In Oakland County, Ferndale Public Schools moved middle and high schools to fully remote learning until April 26, and Clawson Public Schools decided to close classrooms for two weeks.

But the governor’s most recent request left some districts frustrated.

In late January, Whitmer urged all schools to offer an in-person learning option by March 1. Later, the Legislature and Whitmer tied $136 million in federal COVID relief funding for schools to a requirement that schools offer 20 hours a week of classroom instruction by March 22.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more frustrated group of educators than I did Friday” after Whitmer asked schools to return to remote learning, said Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, a school advocacy organization.

“These are school leaders who did everything they could to get students back in classrooms, in large part because the governor signed a bill that would penalize them if they didn’t,” McCann said. “And here we are, two weeks later, being recommended to close?”

Paul Salah, superintendent of Huron Valley Schools in Oakland County, said school leaders are upset not only with the whiplash of recommendations and mandates, but by Whitmer essentially putting the burden of final closing decisions on local educators last week.

“If (school) is not safe, then we need the Department of Health and Human Services to require us to close,” Salah said. “We’re not epidemiologists.

“If there’s something more that we don’t know, we’d love to hear that,” Salah said. “But at this point, a recommendation doesn’t create a different situation for us.”

Whitmer had even less luck shutting down sports. 

Within hours of Whitmer recommending a two-week pause in youth sports on Friday, the Michigan High School Athletic Association said state finals of boys and girls basketball would continue as scheduled over the weekend, and that spring sports would also continue, albeit with increased COVID testing. The MHSAA decision on spring sports was “based on all remaining sports being outdoors,” according to a statement by the organization.

Some youth travel teams not affiliated with schools did choose to halt their participation in tournaments following Whitmer’s address on Friday, said Ron Reed, owner of Fun American Amateur Sports Tournaments. 

The company, known as FAAST, organizes events for baseball, softball, football and basketball teams from Midland to Toledo. “Each team has a group of adults that makes the decisions (about playing),” Reed said. 

One that followed the governor’s request is PC Force in Canton, which decided to discontinue its spring basketball season. Yet others are continuing to play — so the FAAST events are continuing as well, Reed said.  

Of the 70 teams going forward with tournament participation, the majority would find a way to do so even if the state ordered the teams to halt while COVID cases continue at high levels, he said.

“From our past experience … about 60 of those teams would go to Toledo to play,” Reed said, if games weren’t offered in Michigan.

Despite the COVID spike, Michiganders also appear to be traveling more.

Unacast, a New York-based research firm that analyzes GPS data from millions of cellphones, gave Michigan an F nearly every day in March in its efforts to stay put. The company not only tracks how much Michiganders and others are on the move, but also how often we’re making nonessential visits — to places like restaurants, salons, jewelers, or craft and hobby stores, for example.

Its numbers, and those collected by the U.S. Department of Transportation suggest that Michiganders are increasingly moving around more, even as virus cases climb.

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