Whitmer comes under new GOP attacks
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) is under attack from state and national Republicans over new restrictions in the state designed to blunt the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
The order, which took effect Wednesday, bars in-person classes for high schoolers and college students. It shuts down dine-in service for restaurants, and other indoor venues such as casinos and movie theaters must close for three weeks.
Michigan health officials said Wednesday the state has the sixth-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country, and fifth highest number of deaths.
But even as cases and hospitalizations spike exponentially, state Republican leaders and members of the Trump administration say the new restrictions are a draconian overreach of Whitmer's authority.
Scott Atlas, a science adviser to President Trump and a member of the administration's coronavirus task force, urged people to revolt after the governor’s initial announcement.
“The only way this stops is if people rise up. You get what you accept,” Atlas tweeted, before later claiming that he wasn't trying to incite violence.
In an interview with the news site Bridge Michigan, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) said residents don't need to be told what to do, because they have a personal responsibility to take the necessary steps.
While some state Republicans immediately called for Whitmer’s impeachment, Shirkey told Bridge that wasn't going to happen.
“I understand why people feel that way. I vigorously and vehemently disagree with many of the actions our governor has taken over these last few months, but I think that our energy would be better spent on other things besides that,” Shirkey said.
The state’s restaurant industry is also pushing back.
The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the state's Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), arguing the order illegally infringed on the rights of restaurant owners.
Orders made through the state DHHS have the power of law during a public health emergency even if they don't technically come from the governor’s office.
A Michigan Supreme Court decision last month struck down many of Whitmer's COVID-related executive orders, including face-mask mandates for certain settings and capacity limits for indoor gathering. The state quickly reissued them through DHHS.
In an interview on CNN’s New Day Wednesday, Whitmer said she feels for the restaurant industry, and the order was not meant to be punitive.
“I have incredible empathy for what they [small businesses] are struggling with. And yet we have to follow the epidemiology, the public health experts, and make decisions that combat the spread before our hospitals get overwhelmed and before we have 1,000 deaths a week,” Whitmer said.
At the same time, Whitmer's efforts are being praised by public health experts. They say the state's approach should be a model for the rest of the country on how to successfully balance virus control with economics.
While dining rooms are closed, other businesses like hair salons, tattoo parlors, and gyms will remain open. And Michigan is one of the only states to distinguish between elementary and high school in deciding which students will benefit the most from in-person learning.
Despite the escalating public health crisis across the country, many governors have taken only modest actions, like instituting curfews and closing restaurants and bars at 10 p.m.
Whitmer is one of only a few governors to completely close indoor dining, which is one of the main sources of coronavirus spread.
In a letter of support to Whitmer, five of the country's top public health experts urged her to stay the course.
The letter was signed by Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at the Emory University School of Medicine; Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Josh Sharfstein and Caitlin Rivers of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Medicine.
“We ask that you not be deterred by assertions denying the severity of the pandemic, misstating the value of masks and other ways people can protect themselves, or misrepresenting reasonable public health measures,” they wrote. “These statements are irresponsible; if followed, their consequences would be measured in COVID illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths.”
Preeti Malani, chief health officer and professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, said targeted restrictions are the best way to try to curtail the rising infections.
“We have to have some restrictions right now to get things under control, and really to try to prevent the community transmission that, frankly, has escalated to the point where it's not sustainable,” Malani said.
Malani said she understands restrictions are going to be painful, but the businesses being closed are the ones where it is most difficult to keep people safe.
“This isn't a stay at home order,” Malani said. “This is a population-level decision. Do we close the restaurants and bars so that everything else can continue?”