Whitmer extends Michigan's stay-home order through April 30, adds restrictions

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended Michigan's stay-at-home order Thursday through April 30 but added more restrictions, including a new ban on travel between homes, as the state continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first-term Democratic governor issued a new order that continues to require residents to stay inside unless they have to leave to exercise, travel for an essential job, care for a loved one or pick up necessary supplies, such as groceries or medicine.

But the new stay-at-home order imposes new restrictions that weren't in the first one on March 23 and that drew opposition from Republicans.

Beginning Friday, people aren't allowed to travel between homes they own in Michigan or to vacation rentals, and large retail stores must cordon off areas dedicated to furniture, gardening and paint, which aren't viewed as essential supplies. But residents are allowed to travel back to Michigan from another state or go to homes or places of residence outside the state.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a televised update on COVID-19.

"I've talked to rural hospital CEOs who are very concerned about people traveling to a second home," Whitmer said during a press conference Thursday. "They are not equipped to deal with a COVID-19 spread in large magnitude by people that are coming into the community, so they're asking people to stay home."

Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers said tourism destinations in northern Michigan have been seeing people arrive at summer homes amid the pandemic.

"It’s not that we don’t want people in Traverse City," he said. "In order to flatten this curve, people need to stay home."

But in a series of tweets after Whitmer's press conference, House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, called Whitmer's new order the "wrong call" and "bad for Michigan families."

"We had a chance today to protect public health and take a positive step towards recovery," Chatfield added. "Unfortunately, rather than focus on what’s safe, the governor decided again who is 'essential.'"

Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, have both argued the state should begin determining which businesses can operate safely instead of letting only those deemed essential to stay open.

"We cannot sacrifice our economy for a disease that we know is going to be here for a while," Shirkey said in a Wednesday teleconference with the Small Business Association of Michigan. "And all we need to do is be smart about it."

He added later, "If we try to achieve zero risk, particularly in this environment, we will end up with one guaranteed outcome: zero freedoms and zero liberties."

Reining in big box stores

Whitmer's new order adds more restrictions to reduce crowds in stores.

Large stores will have to limit the number of people inside their facilities to no more than four customers for every 1,000 square feet of customer floor space, according to the governor's office. Small stores must limit capacity to 25% of total occupancy limits, including employees, under the fire codes.

"To regulate entry, stores must establish lines with markings for patrons to enable them to stand at least six feet apart from one another while waiting," Whitmer's office said in a statement. "Large stores must also close areas of the store that are dedicated to carpeting, flooring, furniture, garden centers, plant nurseries or paint."

Stores of more than 50,000 square feet also must create at least two hours per week of dedicated shopping time for vulnerable populations: people older than 60, pregnant women and those with chronic conditions.

"If you're not buying food or medicine or other essential items, you should not be going to the store," Whitmer said. "Your grocery stores will remain open. Your pharmacy will remain open so you can get your prescriptions filled. Your banks and credit unions will be functioning. You can still fill your … car with gas."

The new order also encourages people to "limit, to the maximum extent that is safe and feasible, the number of household members who leave the home for any errands."

'Unnecessarily hurt'

The order drew immediate criticism from some Republican lawmakers.

"Gov. Whitmer’s decision to extend the order for another three weeks without common-sense revisions will unnecessarily hurt regions of our state and sectors of our economy that can operate safely," said Shirkey in a statement.

Likewise, House Majority Floor Leader Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, urged Whitmer to change the restrictions "based on region rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach."

"As more time has passed, data clearly shows this virus is far more concentrated in Metro Detroit than it is in northern Michigan," Cole said. "At this point, it’s hard to see why all areas of the state must be treated the same."

While 80% of the state's confirmed COVID-19 cases are in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, Whitmer countered the virus doesn’t observe county, state or party lines.

"Yeah, we might not have had a fatality in every part of the state, but it is present statewide, and the more people move around, the more likely that's going to show up," the governor said.

Likewise, Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, said his home county of Oakland County had one case on March 10. Now, his ZIP code alone has 247 confirmed cases.

"This order is important statewide, even in places with only one confirmed case today," Moss said.

Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said he was still examining the new order Thursday afternoon.

He said continuing a stay-home requirement through the end of the month is reasonable, but he said his group's members will have concerns about the details.

Some of the new provisions could be challenging for retailers, Studley said.

'Economic crisis will go on'

Whitmer announced her initial "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order on March 23. The order, which took effect March 24, requires most businesses to limit their operations unless they are involved with "critical infrastructure."

The order has now been in effect for 16 days. Over that time, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths have climbed in Michigan, which ranks third among all states for confirmed cases and deaths.

As of Thursday, the state had 21,504 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,076 deaths. However, the number of new cases reported Thursday was a nine-day low for new cases in a 24-hour period. And some Republicans have called on Whitmer to begin loosening restrictions on businesses as the state sees record spikes in unemployment claims.

State Rep. Jim Lower, R-Greenville, said exempting lawn care and nursery operations from the stay-at-home requirements "would be a step toward normalcy for a portion of Michigan residents who are struggling to pay bills, rent and mortgages because they have been put out of work."

But it could be a while before the Legislature can have a direct say in the matter. On Tuesday, lawmakers extended the governor's emergency declaration by 23 days to April 30. The declaration gives the governor power to take unilateral steps to combat the virus.

The governor has the power to issue a stay-at-home order past the April 30 expiration date set by the Legislature. However, the order would no longer be in effect if lawmakers let the emergency declaration expire on April 30, said Gideon D'Assandro, spokesman for the House Republicans.

Stephen Hawes, an epidemiology professor at the University of Washington, cautioned Wednesday that lifting population-based interventions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus early, like a stay-at-home order, could result in future upticks in case numbers.

That "will be the challenge for policy-makers moving forward as populations begin to experience a decline of infections and deaths," Hawes said.

Whitmer cautioned Thursday that if the state doesn't "get the health crisis under control, the economic crisis will go on and on and on." She noted Singapore was considered the "gold standard" for combating COVID-19.

"But then they stopped, and now they've got a second wave," Whitmer said. "That would be the most devastating thing for our state.

"If we think that on April 30, that we just flip a switch and life returns to how it was — it's not going to be how it was. We just all have to kind of come to terms with that, and that's the harsh truth."