In the throes of the worst health and economic crisis in modern history, one thing we are thankful for is that Gretchen Whitmer is Michigan’s governor and not Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey. After reading Shirkey’s unhinged Facebook rant over the Easter weekend, in which he shouted that “OUR Governor is DESTROYING OUR HEALTH BY KILLING OUR LIVELIHOODS,” we shudder to think where Michigan would stand right now if our fate were in his hands.
Shirkey’s explosion of irrationality put a poisonous exclamation point on the growing political schism between Whitmer, who continues to stay the COVID containment course while ratcheting up restrictions on individual freedoms and commerce, and Republicans who are now openly advocating for restarting the nonessential economy as soon as possible and allowing people greater freedom of movement. This debate is likely to intensify as the May 1 expiration of the governor’s emergency order approaches and state leaders are faced with charting the path forward.
It is generally understood that there is little chance of a full return to normalcy until a vaccine is developed for coronavirus, or there is convincing scientific evidence to suggest widespread immunity has taken root. Yet the development of a vaccine is reportedly still 12-18 months away. Whitmer recently suggested that antibody tests, which can identify who has developed immunity to the virus and who has not, may also play a key role in determining whether it is safe for individuals to go back to work. In the UK and Germany, leaders are contemplating issuing “immunity certificates” that would allow those who have had the disease, and likely developed immunity, to return to normal life. But the presumably long timeline before antibody tests are widely available and the daunting logistics behind testing the state’s working population suggest this is also a longer-term remedy.
Meanwhile, there is good reason to be gravely concerned about the economic consequences of a continued freeze on all but essential commerce for even a few more months, much less a year. Which begs the question: What should reopening the economy look like and when should it happen? Before we look forward, it is useful to first look back, respecting the age-old admonition that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. When social distancing measures were relaxed after the first wave of deadly infections during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, a second wave of infections quickly took hold and killed even more people. Despite the dramatic advantages of modern medicine compared to a century ago, the risk of a second wave of coronavirus infections is real, and the potential consequences are simply too severe to contemplate a premature end to our current containment measures. In fact, a second wave of infections is now sweeping across Japan’s Hokkaido prefecture, less than a month after emergency sheltering orders issued in February were unwisely lifted.
Republicans like Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who recently launched his own groundless grenades against the governor, accusing her of putting “fear ahead of public safety,” argue for a selective reopening, with restrictions on travel and commerce eased mostly in rural areas of the state where the virus is less prevalent. In the unlikely event that Whitmer accedes to this approach, both Republican leaders can shoulder the blame if things go awry and coronavirus infections surge in rural areas where containment measures were relaxed.
We don’t envy the governor or state lawmakers as they grapple with these difficult questions, but we do have three key suggestions as they consider how to take the next steps. First, reinforcing our previously stated position on the use of cloth masks by essential employees, we think any plan to reopen nonessential businesses across the state should come with strict requirements for all employees to wear masks, both for their own safety and to protect the public. Oakland County’s health officer wisely issued just such an order Monday for all public-facing essential employees. This requirement should be in addition to mandatory daily health screening to identify employees with symptoms of a coronavirus infection or who have been in contact with someone who is infected.
The second key element of a reopening strategy must be the continued protective isolation of high-risk populations, including senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions. Given how little we still know about the prevalence of asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus, it would be reckless to lift restrictions on public access to long-term care facilities like nursing homes, for example. A stronger supportive network will also be needed to ensure that those who remain quarantined have reliable access to food, health care and other essentials.
The third element of a smart reopening strategy is implementation of a vastly more aggressive regime of testing, contact tracing and quarantining of individuals who test positive. Making this piece of the puzzle work depends entirely on a massive expansion of testing across the state. The opening of 13 new testing centers this week is a step in the right direction, but reopening the economy will require the capacity to test far more Michigan residents, symptomatic or not. Only then will we have the data and the confidence to move ahead with easing restrictions, knowing we have protocols in place to prevent a devastating second wave of infections.
Aside from the practical and logistical questions of safely easing restrictions, there are also considerations of equity and justice. Given that the overwhelming majority of the state’s COVID cases are in the three-county metro Detroit region, and with the disconcerting knowledge that African Americans are vastly overrepresented in both COVID infections and deaths, any policy to reopen rural Michigan while keeping the Detroit area on lockdown will reek of racial bias. Letting the rest of the state go about their business while people of color continue to die in Detroit would represent the worst sort of social injustice, inflicting yet another grievous wound on those already struggling to survive the COVID calamity.
As we all grapple with the enormity of our present circumstances and consider what the future holds, we encourage our political leaders to keep calm and avoid using this crisis to create and exploit political divisions. Reasonable people can disagree on the path forward, but there is no need for inflammatory rhetoric and baseless attacks. We are all in this together, and it’s the only way we will come out of it.
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