Critics: Why are Michigan's restrictions different than other states'?

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Bob Kuszmaul, owner of D & B Plants in Richmond, used the word "frustration" Friday to describe the feelings of landscape and nursery businesses toward Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's latest stay-at-home order.

Kuszmaul is among a group of business owners and Republican lawmakers who argue Whitmer's Thursday executive order to stem the spread of COVID-19 goes too far, imposing restrictions that other states are avoiding.

While saying he understands the urgent need to combat the virus, Kuszmaul added, "A lot of these functions can be done safely. They can be done with zero contact. Not minimal. Zero."

Caution tape bars customers from buying seed packets at a Lowe's store in Lansing on Friday, April 10, 2020. The day before, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer required large stores to cordon off their garden centers.

"My business in particular is on the edge of not being solvent," said Kuszmaul, who's owned D & B Plants, a wholesale grower, for 37 years. "It's pretty scary."

To the frustration of businesses and advocacy groups that represent them, Whitmer's new stay-at-home order issued Thursday bars workers in certain fields, like landscaping, who have operate in other states.

Two sentences in Whitmer's new order help set the state apart, according to critics. The sentences define who qualifies as "critical infrastructure workers," those eligible to keep leaving their homes to go to their jobs.

Whitmer's order specifically cites guidance on "critical infrastructure workers" issued by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency on March 19.  

"This order does not adopt any subsequent guidance document released by this same agency," the new order says.

The federal agency issued new guidance on March 28, adding more workers, including landscapers who provide "necessary" services and individuals performing housing construction related to combating "the nation’s existing housing supply shortage."

The newer guidance includes employees supporting the 2020 Census, clergy for "essential" support and workers supporting the operation of firearm retailers and shooting ranges.

"This list is intended to help state, local, tribal and territorial officials as they work to protect their communities while ensuring continuity of functions critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security," Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, wrote in a letter describing the guidance.

The governors of Ohio and Indiana included the new guidance when they issued their extended stay-at-home orders. Whitmer's office didn't immediately respond to a question about why the new guidance wasn't allowed in Michigan.

During her Thursday press conference, she said the state needed to "double down" to save lives. More than 1,000 people in the state have already died with COVID-19. Michigan has the third most cases of the virus nationally.

"While we can come up with all sorts of scenarios where we can make an argument that someone is safe in whatever activity it is they want to do, every single exception to a Stay Home, Stay Safe order makes this more porous and makes it less likely to work," Whitmer said Thursday.

But House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, tweeted Friday that of 26 states relying on the federal guidance for their restrictions, 20 are using the most recent guidance.

"Michigan is an outlier & it’s holding our state back unnecessarily," Chatfield added. "We can take COVID-19 seriously, protect public health and be more data-driven."

In a Friday interview, Chatfield listed bicycle shops and real estate services as examples of businesses allowed under the newer guidance but barred under the original guidance.

Chatfield said he believes state government needs to change its approach to the stay-at-home requirements overall. Adopting the new guidance should be the "bare minimum," he said.

Businesses in Michigan are looking to Ohio and Indiana and trying to figure out why their state is different, said Brian Calley, Republican former lieutenant governor and president of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

There are businesses that can't operate that provide necessary services, Calley said. He mentioned the example of homeowners who need lawn maintenance to keep mosquitoes at bay.

“We’re an outlier on public health outcomes and we’re an outlier on how we’ve constructed the stay-at-home order," Calley said. "Why is that?"

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce had specifically asked Whitmer to adopt the new federal guidance.

Instead, the state's new guidance “doubles down” on freezing Michigan’s approach to identifying what businesses can operate to mid-March, said Rich Studley, president and CEO of the chamber.

"We have one of the most difficult, complicated and hard-to-understand stay-at-home orders in the country," Studley said Friday.

In addition to rejecting the latest federal guidance on "critical infrastructure workers," Whitmer's new order also restricts people's travel between residences and requires large stores to cordon off areas dedicated to paint, furniture and gardening.

The new order is in effect until April 30. The original order was in effect through Monday. 

Businesses can't even arrange to drop off mulch at customers' homes, said Kuszmaul, the wholesale grower who previously served as president of the Michigan Nursery & Landscape Association. And the timing of the restrictions is particularly problematic, he said.

Traditionally, his business peaks from the end of April until the first week of June, he said. Inventories are targeted to be ready for certain times, Kuszmaul explained.

Those who grow bedding plants target their inventories by the week, he said. For some nurseries, a single bad weather day can mean a bad year, he said.

"This will overshadow that," Kuszmaul said.