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Phil Power | Searching for balanced political solutions in reopening Michigan

I’ve been in the news business for nearly 60 years, long enough to realize how difficult it is to report on complex events – particularly those tinged with politics – in ways that are accurate, fair-minded and helpful to readers’ understanding of what’s really going on.

“It ain’t necessarily so,” goes the old Gershwin song.  And I’ve found generally it’s wise to take the time to reflect on what’s really going on underneath the surface before jumping to conclusions.

A good case in point is the latest kerfuffle over Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders for Michiganders to shelter in place.  

She’s become a major target for partisan outrage over her stay-at-home orders over the past month.  Last week saw several thousand people blocking the streets around the Capitol protesting “nanny government” and infringement of personal liberties.  The protest apparatus included a bunch of Tea Party and Trump 2020 flags, making the whole thing look a bit like an organized demonstration at a political convention.

President Trump then on Friday called for his partisans to “liberate Michigan” — whatever that might mean. The governor has repeatedly criticized the president for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis; in turn, he’s called her “Half Whitmer,” among other things.

Needless to say, much of the energy in all this comes from the possibility that Michigan’s governor might be picked as a vice-presidential candidate by Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and that Michigan will be an important swing state in this fall’s election.

Michigan has ranked high among all states for COVID-19 cases and deaths for weeks. Gov. Whitmer’s first order in March, urged residents to stay home and distance themselves and closed “nonessential” businesses.  It mostly earned praise from public health authorities and some bipartisan support.  Her second, tougher order, which lasts through the end of the month, also forbade citizens from traveling to their second homes up north and restricted the sale of seeds and plants.  

It has now become a political issue.

Republican Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield argues that wise policy wouldn’t make an arbitrary blanket distinction between “essential” and “nonessential” activities, but rather between safe and unsafe ones. The GOP-controlled legislature passed resolutions of opposition.

Now I’m getting phone calls from friends in west Michigan and the U.P., pointing out that the numbers of people from those areas who were infected by the virus were nowhere as high as the rates of infection from the Detroit metropolitan area.  “Why”, they argued, “should a single statewide order place differing regional rates of public health risk of exposure under the same uniform statewide policy?”

A commonsense blended policy, they maintained, would recognize regional differences and therefore be much less likely to be regarded as an edict from on high. 

Everybody wants the economy to be restarted quickly and for things to get back to normal.  But that’s not going to happen until we get far, far more widely available and accurate testing for the virus than we have now.  That’s not likely to happen quickly.  

As calls grow for prompt reopening of the economy, we’re at risk of being caught between the dangers of uninformed urgency and partisan conflict that pits region against region and people against people.  

Maybe the compromise “political” solution — blended as it might be — is the best way to bring most people together at a time when that’s what we need so much.

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