TUESDAY, April 14 — The COVID-19 pandemic may be reaching a plateau in Michigan as the rise in new cases tapers off this week, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said it’s still not quite time to ease up on sweeping restrictions on nonessential businesses, unnecessary travel and outdoor recreation.
Bars and restaurants statewide have been closed a month. Many other businesses deemed nonessential by the state have been shuttered for three weeks. And it’s likely to be several more weeks before Michigan can consider starting its slow roll back toward normalcy, Whitmer said.
“We have a few tough days ahead of us, but those days where we can resume normalcy are on the horizon if we keep doing what we need to do to get past this moment,” she said Monday.
But for thousands of residents with an array of political viewpoints, Whitmer’s latest extension to the state’s “Stay Safe, Stay Home” executive order has gone too far, unnecessarily curtailing personal liberties and crippling Michigan’s economy in the process.
Many want to go back to work. Some, apparently, still want to be able to visit their-in laws. Others want to buy guns, play golf or go boating. And for many freedom-loving Michiganders, they’re just growing tired of being told what they can and cannot do by the state government.
“You didn’t see this protest with the governor’s first executive order,” explained Matt Seely, spokesman for the Michigan Conservative Coalition. “The majority of us had expected to see these restrictions relaxed by now, but instead she really just went the other way with it.”
The Michigan Conservative Coalition is planning a protest at the Michigan State Capitol at noon Wednesday called “Operation Gridlock.” The goal: Bring in thousands of drivers to jam up roads near the Capitol to protest the lockdown.
Seely said drivers should stay in their vehicles, make room for emergency vehicles as necessary and avoid stops at gas stations and convenience stores to help curb the spread of COVID-19. It’s a bipartisan and peaceful display of “civil disobedience,” he said. And according to Whitmer, it’s also organized (in no small part) through funding provided by the DeVos family.
Seely said the DeVos-backed Michigan Freedom Fund is only helping to promote the protest.
“I think everybody tried to do their civic duty and to be respectful, but at this point, it just seems to be completely unreasonable,” Seely added. “It doesn’t make any sense to be bankrupting companies and industries and not consider the resulting impact on families as part of the public health crisis in Michigan. We’re the most restrictive state in the union right now.”
Last week, Whitmer ordered Michigan into a few more weeks of coronavirus-induced lockdown. While extending existing restrictions on nonessential businesses and ordering residents to stay home, the mandate also introduced a host of additional state regulations through April 30.
As with the prior order, the extension limits gatherings and travel and requires all workers who are unnecessary to sustain or protect life to stay home. But a notable expansion also bans all travel between residences — including visits to family or summer homes up north.
All public or private gatherings of any size have also been banned. Residents can still travel to care for family or to pick up essential supplies, but the message is otherwise clear: Stay home.
U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., among others elected officials, have said that orders like those can “trample the rights of the people.” He called on Whitmer last week to quickly reassess the order, noting that the extension goes “too far and will erode confidence in her leadership.”
“Sensible instructions to practice social distancing, wear masks, and stay home already do most of the work to reduce the virus’s spread. By pushing too far, the governor undermines her own authority and increases the likelihood people will not follow reasonable guidelines,” said Amash, of Grand Rapids, who quit the Republican Party and voted to impeach Trump.
Additional state restrictions have also been clarified to prohibit motor boats and golfing.
The revised order also prohibits big-box stores — only those larger than 50,000 square feet — from selling items newly clarified as nonessential, like paint, garden and flooring equipment. Dozens of flooring companies, paint supply stores and nurseries have been forced to close.
Smaller retailers, like local hardware stores, however, are free to continue selling those items. Many stores have also made those products available for delivery and curbside pickup.
But the widespread closure of businesses is taking its toll on the economy. Michigan is dealing with record-high levels of unemployment claims with unnamed billions in lost sales revenues.
Republican leaders that promoted a message of bipartisan unity weeks ago as Whitmer signed off on executive orders are growing frustrated. And as quarantine fever tests the patience — and wallets — of many residents across the state, tensions have reached a new boiling point.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield, for instance, voiced some initial support for the lockdown on March 27, but reversed course last weekend, calling on Whitmer to immediately relax some restrictions.
“The governor’s extended stay-at-home order is the wrong call and is bad for Michigan families,” Chatfield posted to Twitter. “People in our state are hurting. Family-owned businesses have been run to the ground and hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said the order is “destroying our health by ruining our livelihoods.” State Rep. Michele Hoitenga also lashed out against Whitmer, noting the order was a “radical extreme” and that she’s worried about the “mental health toll” on residents.
A petition to remove Whitmer from office has also garnered nearly 200,000 signatures.
For the protesters involved in Wednesday’s traffic jam, Seely said it’s less about their inability to buy seeds and paint at Home Depot and more about letting residents use their own common sense. And the governor shouldn’t be able to singlehandedly dictate what’s essential, he said.
“The idea that the state government is telling me what I can and cannot purchase is really unprecedented,” Seely added. “At some point, we’re all going to have to emerge from our homes and be diligent and responsible, possibly wearing a mask or whatever we have to do. At this point, to be more restrictive just doesn’t make sense. The outcry really speaks for itself.”
Seely, among thousands of others in Michigan, also doubts medical science. Despite warnings from the state’s top health officials, he insisted this week that concerns over the spread of COVID-19 simply don’t outweigh the consequences of sweeping restrictions on everyday life.
Even without a protest, Whitmer said on Monday that she hears those concerns loud and clear. But Michigan — with hundreds of new coronavirus cases and deaths still being reported every week — just isn’t quite ready to begin phasing itself back into the normalities of everyday life.
And while Whitmer shares in both the frustration and anxiety among residents, prematurely reopening businesses and easing up social distancing measures could lead to many more COVID-19 deaths and eventually overload hospitals statewide, state officials said this week.
“We are writing the plan so we can re-engage safely,” Whitmer said. “I want you to have your freedom. I want to have mine too. We’ll get to a place where we can be with our friends and family again, where restaurants will open again, where we can go back to work safely again.”
Car dealerships are physically closed but vehicles can still be purchased online.
The executive order does not prohibit the sales of car seats for children, flags and bug spray.
Gun stores and shooting ranges, as nonessential operations, cannot operate through April 30.
Licensed marijuana, liquor and lottery sales can continue as normal, though Whitmer encourages residents not to make “special trips” specifically to purchase lottery tickets.
Golf courses are not allowed to open, even if golfers practice safe social distancing on the course. Individual exceptions to the order, despite pleas from residents, will not be made.
Motorized boats are not allowed, but residents are free to take out their canoes and kayaks.
Churches are still exempt from any restrictions on social distancing or against congregation.
Landscaping companies are still nonessential in Michigan unless they’re being contracted for limited, emergency maintenance. Residents are free to continue their own yard work as usual.
Stores under 50,000 square feet — unlike big-box stores — are free to continue selling paint, gardening and flooring equipment. Stores of all sizes also provide curbside pickup options.
A willful violation of the order is a misdemeanor and carries a fine of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail. Enforcement of the order is being handled exclusively by local law enforcement agencies. Officials said most will receive a warning, with charges likely only arising from other incidents.