Whitmer vows 'we will get past this' COVID-19 moment, attacks Betsy DeVos

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Amid confusion and frustration with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's tightened and extended stay-home order, the governor told residents Monday that she understands the anxiety and hopelessness residents may feel and expressed hope the state may be seeing a plateau in coronavirus spread. 

The curve of coronavirus cases appears to be flattening, said Whitmer, noting she was working on a plan to reengage while avoiding a reignition of the virus' spread. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives her morning coronavirus pandemic address via livestream Monday, April 13, 2020.

"We will get past this, we will get through this," the first-term governor said in a press conference at the state Captiol with Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. "This is not a permanent moment. We are crunching the data daily."

As recently as Thursday, the governor said the state was still in the "upslope" of cases and wouldn't peak until late April or early May.

The state is "cautiously optimistic" that the measures taken, such as requiring nonessential workers and others to stay home and limit their activities, are starting to work, Whitmer said. 

"I want you to have your freedom. I want to have mine, too."

During the press conference, the first-term Democratic governor attacked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos without naming her, taking exception that a group allegedly funded by the DeVos family would be holding a car protest of Whitmer's policies outside the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday.

The DeVos family, through its spokesman, denied spending money on the rally or the group organizing the event.

The comments came after Whitmer on Thursday issued her latest executive order extending the state home requirement until April 30 and adding further restrictions on commercial and personal activities around Michigan. Confusion and frustration with the Whitmer order's prohibition on gardening supplies, motorized boating and travel between residences escalated over the weekend. 

Some stores throughout the state, confused by the order, put caution tape around items such as American flags, car seats and bug spray. But Whitmer said Monday all of those items were exempt from the order. 

The governor said she understood the frustration and had "thick skin," but she asked residents not to "disseminate demonstrably false information."

Whitmer criticized a rally scheduled for Wednesday, alleging the group organizing the rally — the Michigan Conservative Coalition — is backed by the DeVos family. Operation Gridlock will involve people surrounding the Capitol in their vehicles. 

"I think it's really inappropriate for a sitting member of the United States president's cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor," Whitmer said. "I think they should disavow it and encourage people to stay home and stay safe."

At a 2017 Senate confirmation hearing after she was nominated by President Donald Trump, DeVos vowed that “If I am confirmed, as you know, I will not be involved in or engaged in political contributions, and my husband will not either." 

Other members of the DeVos family have continued to contribute to political candidates and causes while DeVos has served in the Trump administration. 

“Contrary to the governor’s statements, the DeVos family hasn’t spent a dime on this protest nor has it offered prior support to the organizing entity," said Nick Wasmiller, a spokesman for the DeVos family. "The DeVos family, however, understands the frustration of fellow Michiganders as elements of the governor’s top-down approach appear to go beyond public safety. Michigan deserves competent governance, not baseless attacks.”

Meshawn Maddock, one of the organizers for the rally and a founder of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, said the coalition is not funded by the DeVos family.

"To call this a DeVos-funded event is just ridiculous," she said. "That’s partisan spin.”

The event, however, was promoted on Facebook by the Michigan Freedom Fund, which is funded by the DeVos family. 

The allegation that the rally is backed by the DeVos family is "categorically false," Freedom Fund President Tony Daunt said.  

"Perhaps if the governor spent more time focusing on this crisis and less time playing politics and auditioning to be Joe Biden's VP, she wouldn't make wild accusations based on a $250 ad spend promoting the event on Facebook," Daunt said. 

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown defended the governor's comment.

"It's highly inappropriate for a group that's primarily funded by a member of the president's cabinet to be launching a partisan political attack during the worst public health crisis in a century," Brown said after the press conference.

Whitmer pushed back Monday on Trump's tweet claim that the federal government would decide when states reopen and not the governors of each state. 

"The government doesn't get opened up via Twitter," Whitmer said "It gets opened up at the state level."

Michigan reported Sunday the lowest increase in new confirmed COVID-19 cases in 17 days, but cautioned it may not reflect an actual decrease in infections as much as decreased testing over the holiday weekend.

As of Monday, the number of COVID-19 cases in Michigan has reached 25,635 with more than 1,600 deaths.

Republican legislative leaders want to shift the state's focus from criteria determining essential vs. non-essential personnel to the safe reopening of some businesses.

Khaldun said Monday said the state would have to ensure the number of cases had stopped climbing before allowing folks to return to work. 

"Easing up on social distancing measures too soon will be devastating," Khaldun said. "A lot more people will die and our hospital systems will get overwhelmed."

Business Leaders for Michigan supported the governor's caution and said the group would help to develop plans to reopen businesses. 

"All of us want to get back to the way we lived and worked before this pandemic struck," said Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of the group. "But not at the expense of the health of thousands more Michiganders or long-term risk to our economy.”