Whitmer declares disaster, asks Legislature to extend emergency powers by 70 days

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer formally declared a state of disaster in Michigan Wednesday and has asked the Legislature to extend her March 10 state of emergency by 70 days — an extension the GOP-led Senate argues is too lengthy.

Whitmer’s state of disaster declaration paired with the state of emergency authorizes the state police and emergency management to “maximize all state efforts” to assist local governments in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

The declaration will remain in place until “disaster conditions no longer exist.”

As of Wednesday, Michigan had 9,334 confirmed coronavirus cases and 337 deaths. State officials said Michigan is on the "upslope" of cases and had not yet reached its peak.

“Today’s action will allow my administration to respond more effectively to every facet of this crisis," Whitmer said in a statement. " During this time, it’s crucial that Michiganders continue to stay home and keep their distance from others. We will get through this together.” 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visits the TCF Center in Detroit on Wednesday. The center is being turned into a field hospital for coronavirus patients.

Whitmer asked House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, to approve a concurrent resolution allowing her to extend the state of emergency and disaster declaration by an additional 70 days.

“To meet the steep, varied, and ongoing demands created by the COVID-19 pandemic, my administration must continue to use the full range of tools available to protect the health, safety, and welfare of our state and its residents," Whitmer said in the letter. "I welcome you and your colleagues’ continued partnership in fighting this pandemic.”

Chatfield said the House supports an extension of the state of emergency but is reviewing the details of the request, according to his spokesman Gideon D'Assandro.

Shirkey said he supports an extension of the emergency declaration, but said "a 70-day extension is too long" and that the Legislature would "pursue a reasonable extension."

"Furthermore, we feel it is important to point out that our support for a reasonable extension of the emergency declaration does not transfer to support for a lengthy extension of the current ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ order," Shirkey said in a statement.

Several of the executive orders issued by Whitmer in the past weeks in response to the coronavirus have cited the Emergency Management Act of 1976, under which she declared the initial state of emergency that gave her the authority to take such action.

The Emergency Management Act requires the governor to end the state of emergency within 28 days “unless a request by the governor for an extension of the state of disaster for a specific number of days is approved by resolution of both houses of the Legislature.”

The orders given under the emergency management act “provide important protections to the people of Michigan, and they should remain a part of our state’s ongoing efforts to combat this pandemic throughout the full course of that fight,” Whitmer said.

The House and Senate have not met since March 17, when they passed a $125 million coronavirus spending plan. Both chambers are tentatively scheduled to meet April 7, the day the declaration of a state of emergency is scheduled to expire.

"When the Legislature meets, there are changes to procedure in place to minimize the risk of exposure," D'Assandro said. 

This comes after Detroit Democratic lawmaker Isaac Robinson died Sunday from a suspected case of COVID-19. State Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, was diagnosed with the virus last week but is nearly recovered.

Chatfield expressed concerns a couple of weeks ago about the "unintended consequences" of Whitmer's early executive orders but has been working with the governor to adjust some of them, including a tweak that exempted churches from a penalty for assemblies exceeding 50 people.