Macomb exec to Whitmer: It's time for a small business restart

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Macomb County's top official is calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to layout reopening plans for restaurants, hair salons and health clubs in Metro Detroit as Michigan has "flattened the curve" of COVID-19.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel late Friday told The Detroit News it's "unacceptable" that the state has not provided any clarity on when small business owners in the region can expect to reopen their doors and bring workers back. 

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel

"We have got an economic crisis. The businesses are at their wits' end," Hackel told The News. "They want to know when they are going to open. They don't get an answer."

Hackel's appeal to Whitmer comes as the governor has permitted a relaunch in certain sectors of the state's economy. Automotive plants have already begun bringing workers back, and restaurants, shops and bars in northern Michigan communities and parts of the Upper Peninsula reopened with limited capacity and other restrictive protocols over Memorial Day weekend. 

During a Friday news conference, Whitmer said her staff is meeting Saturday to review the state's COVID data and decide whether she can move to open more regions of the state or other sectors of the economy.

Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer, noted Saturday that the Michigan Economic Recovery Council was formed by the state's top medical and business experts to advise Whitmer on a path forward. 

"Governor Whitmer is using the best facts and data provided to safely reengage our state in a way that protects working people and mitigates the likelihood of a second spike in coronavirus cases," Brown wrote in an email.

The state's safe start plan, Brown added, was intended to provide details of "what will come next, in what order, and how we will make those important decisions."

Macomb County, like Oakland and Wayne counties as well as Detroit, have crafted blueprints for the slow restart of business and stringent regulations to protect the health of residents as reported cases and deaths attributed to the novel respiratory virus have slowed in recent weeks. 

Hackel said Macomb is averaging about 1.3 deaths a day and the state's figures have also been on the decline. 

The executive tweeted to Whitmer late Friday, saying "it is time to allow our restaurants, hair salons, health clubs, and other businesses to reopen," adding "I trust that they will do so responsibly."

Michigan's COVID deaths have slowed to a rate of fewer than 100 a day for over a week. So far in May, the state has averaged about 56 COVID deaths a day, compared with 118 a day in April. Additionally, testing for the virus has reached a goal of 15,000 per day.

Metro Detroit, including the city and Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, have accounted for 62% of Michigan's COVID-19 cases and 78% of the state's deaths overall, figures show. 

Southeast Michigan has seen reductions in cases for seven weeks and is down to about 20 cases per million people per day, Joneigh Khaldun, the state's top health officer, noted Thursday. 

If the positive trends continue, Michigan will be able to continue moving forward with the next phases of reopening, Khaldun added. 

Hackel stressed Whitmer promised early on that a restart could commence once the curve was flattened and now that it has, she must act to help those financially devastated by the pandemic. He's "not casting stones" but is "asking an important question of clarity," he said. 

"When are we just going to give them a chance to open up? They're not going to be reckless about it. They are putting together plans, almost begging," he said. 

The state's budget also has taken a catastrophic hit during the crisis, prompting Whitmer and her team to urge the federal government to step in and provide assistance not only in Michigan but nationwide. During a Thursday news briefing state officials reiterated that call, noting the state is facing a $3 billion shortfall and expects a delay in submitting a budget as it works to identify potential cuts. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives a COVID-19 update.

Macomb County reported its first case of the virus on March 13, two days after the first cases were reported in Oakland and Wayne counties.

Hackel said he and others are aware of the risk for a secondary wave of COVID-19 and take it seriously. But said that shouldn't hamper a slow and responsible restart of the small business community in the meantime.

They have the ability to pull back if it's warranted, he said. 

"I think everybody understands the health issue. These businesses want to be part of the solution," he said. "I guess I could sit down and remain silent but that's not what people elected me to do."