Police, health officials rebut Whitmer's claims about ambulance protest problems
Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said during a Monday press conference that protesters last week blocked ambulances from reaching Sparrow Hospital, but local law enforcement and hospital officials have countered the claims.
Whitmer's assertions stem from a Wednesday protest called Operation Gridlock during which more than 4,000 people — most staying in their cars — surrounded the Capitol for hours to protest the governor’s extended and tightened stay-home order.
Police have said the gridlock caused no issues for ambulances, but Whitmer has since maintained otherwise in at least two public press conferences. The Democratic governor has been under pressure from Republican legislative leaders, certain business groups and some residents to carve out exceptions to her tightened stay home order that still follow federal guidance and create a plan for gradually reopening parts of Michigan's economy.
“The blocking of cars and ambulances trying to get into Sparrow Hospital immediately endangered lives,” Whitmer said Monday. “…While I respect people’s right to dissent, I am worried about the health of the people of our state.”
Sparrow Hospital is located on Michigan Avenue about a mile east of the Capitol.
When questioned last Thursday about the assertion, Whitmer’s spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the governor was referring to a tweet by Gongwer News Service Executive Editor and Publisher Zach Gorchow, showing an ambulance in traffic near the Capitol, as well as “multiple posts” from medical workers inside the hospital.
The ambulance took five to seven minutes to make it through the vehicles — starting from the time it turned on its lights and sirens, Gorchow said.
"What was not clear to me was whether the ambulance was called to a run and trying to get to a call or if the drivers had no run but were alarmed that traffic had not moved for close to an hour and used their lights and siren to clear a path," he said.
Brown sent The News screen grabs showing Facebook posts from two Sparrow Hospital health care workers who said ambulances were blocked from entering the hospital.
“I work at sparrow and I will tell you THEY ARE BLOCKED and ppl are HONKING their horns where people are trying to rest and recover!! SELFISH. Our employees can’t even get to work!! Our cancer patients can’t to their appointments!” Lindsay Bowman wrote last week on the WILX News 10 Facebook page.
Capital Area Transportation Authority on Wednesday said service was temporarily disrupted downtown and surrounding areas because of the protests.
"CATA is unable to accommodate life-sustaining and medically necessary trips to or from these areas," the agency posted on Twitter.
But hospital, ambulance and police officials said they had no reports of any patients being endangered by the protest.
Sparrow Hospital spokesman John Foren said last week that some hospital personnel were delayed in making their shifts on the day of the protest, causing some personnel to work past the ends of their normal shifts.
But the ambulance entrance to and from the hospital remained clear, Foren said. The Sparrow spokesman said Thursday he had received no reports that ambulances were stuck in traffic farther out from the hospital, either.
Despite some "confusion," Lansing police had no complaints about any ambulance being locked in traffic during an emergency, said Robert Merritt, a spokesman for the Lansing Police Department. When ambulances on non-emergency runs were in traffic, "rally participants slowly cleared a path," he said.
"There were NO complaints from any emergency services vehicle being held up while on an emergency run (lights and siren)," Merritt said in an email.
"There are many photos/videos floating around that show an ambulance moving slow within the vehicles in the rally. This ambulance and some other emergency services vehicles (not on emergency runs) were seen driving through parts of the rally."
Mercy Ambulance, which is located just east of Sparrow on Michigan Avenue, also had no delays but some units did take alternate routes because of the traffic, said Dennis Palmer, president and CEO of Mercy Ambulance.
The accommodations were no different from what the company would have to make if there were a Michigan State University game, a traffic crash or construction, Palmer said.
"In fact, we were more prepared because we were given advance notice," the Mercy Ambulance CEO said.
There was a potential for a delay and his employees remarked as much on social media, Palmer said. But there were no actual delays to service, he said.
While Lansing police were responsible for enforcement in the city at large, Michigan State Police had jurisdiction over the Capitol grounds. Michigan State Police said early on that, despite a lack of social distancing by some demonstrators, they would only intervene in the protest if there was a threat to human life or vandalism.
Michigan State Police made one arrest during the hours-long protest when one protester allegedly assaulted another, but otherwise the crowds largely were "polite" and "respectful," said First Lt. Darren Green.
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, likewise, has never maintained ambulances were trapped during the protest. But the mayor issued Friday a press release warning protesters that next time he would ask for mutual aid from local police departments to help manage the crowds and enforce social distancing.
"Lansing Police will monitor Lansing ordinance violations and cite offenders when we have available offices and as possible to ensure officer safety," Schor said. "Violations such as excessive noise, purposely blocking roads, and public urination or defecation, and others."
The rally organizer, the Michigan Conservative Coalition, sent a letter Sunday to Schor noting "an unrelated group" was responsible for the individuals who left their cars and protested on the Capitol lawn.
Coalition President Rosanne Ponkowski said the group is not planning on organizing future events, but other groups were "co-opting" the name and idea of Operation Gridlock. Ponkowski said the group is encouraging residents to avoid any upcoming rallies.
"Our goal was to bring attention to the irrational rules in place that were putting over 1,000,000 workers on the unemployment line," Ponkowski wrote. "We feel the governor has heard the people's message at Operation Gridlock and she needs time to act to restart the economy. Now."