Whitmer extends stay-home order till May 15, relaxes garden, boating bans immediately

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended her stay-at-home order Friday through May 15, while lifting certain restrictions on businesses and outdoor activities effective immediately.

The order also now allows individuals to travel between two residences in Michigan, including to a new home, though Whitmer strongly discouraged such travel during the coronavirus pandemic. A ban on travel to vacation rentals remains in place.

She is also allowing motorized boating and golfing (without motorized carts) as long as they observe "strict" social distancing protocols to remain six feet apart from one another.

Among the businesses that Whitmer said may reopen are lawn services, garden shops, landscapers and nurseries. But they must adhere to "enhanced" social-distancing rules, which means restricting the number of workers to those "strictly necessary to perform the in-person work."

Groundskeepers and maintenance workers are also allowed to resume in-person work in restricted numbers, as well as moving and storage workers and bicycle maintenance and repair shops.

Cases of COVID-19 began to plateau in Michigan over the last week, prompting Whitmer to allow some business operations in the state to reopen with added public-safety measures, as well as cordoned-off sections of big-box stores such as garden centers.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer announces the extension of the Michigan's Stay Home, Stay Safe Order on Friday, April 24, 2020. She is accompanied by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun (left).

"We will consider this the preliminary stage for economic re-engagement," Whitmer said at a Friday news briefing. "If we continue to see our numbers decline, we can responsibly consider additional steps.

"If we see an increase, we may have to be nimble enough to go backward on occasion. My hope though — my fervent hope —  is that people still take this incredibly seriously."

Read:Governor's executive order

The Detroit Regional Chamber said Whitmer's revisions begin the process of "responsibly restarting" Michigan’s economy.

"COVID-19 has created a dual-threat to Michigan — a public health crisis coupled with an economic crisis — and the original 'Stay Home, Stay Safe' order has initially flattened the curve and positions Michigan to reactivate its economy," the chamber's CEO, Sandy K. Baruah, said in a statement.

"This is good news for some of the hundreds of thousands of Michiganders struggling economically."

New mask requirement

Whitmer stressed that her overall message is still the same: People should remain home as much as possible and avoid "unnecessary" trips outside the house. 

A new requirement under the order is for people to cover their noses and mouths with homemade or non-medical grade face coverings when they enter enclosed public spaces starting Monday. This was previously a recommendation by the state.

“We need to save those medical-grade masks for our first responders, people on the front line,” said Whitmer, noting it includes surgical masks and N95 respirator masks.

Whitmer's office said no one would "be subject to criminal penalty" for failing to wear a mask but emphasized that a face covering is "crucial to protecting the public and our critical employees." 

Attorney General Dana Nessel's office confirmed there is no penalty for failing to wear a mask. But in response to a reporter's question, Whitmer said businesses could refuse service to people who fail to wear a mask.

Michiganians won’t have to wear face coverings when they’re walking in their neighborhood, for instance, but will have to when going to the grocery store or pharmacy, officials said. 

Jason Bauer said Friday morning he went to buy a drink at the Menards home improvement store next to his business in Auburn Hills, where the security guard told him he couldn't enter without a mask. 

"He said 'we’re selling them for a buck,' so I just bought one," said Bauer, noting he wasn't asked for a mask when he shopped at the Menards on Wednesday. 

"I understand. People shouldn’t be going out as much as they do anyway. It’s not going to kill anyone if they stay home a few more weeks."

Employers are also required to provide "at least" cloth face coverings to their employees reporting to work.

The revised order allows some workers who perform "lower-risk" activities to return to the job.

Businesses permitted to resume operations must implement enhanced social-distancing protocols by barring gatherings in which people can’t maintain six feet of distance, limiting in-person interactions with clients or patrons, and providing protective gear such as gloves and masks “as appropriate for the activity being performed.”

Whitmer also wants businesses to adopt protocols for the sharing of tools and equipment and ensure their frequent cleaning.

The order clarifies that any business or operation that employs workers who perform resumed activities — but that does not sell necessary supplies — may sell any goods through remote sales via delivery or at the curbside. But these kinds of businesses must remain closed to the public.

More exemptions sought

State Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, said he was "shocked, dismayed and furious" that construction and real estate were not included in Whitmer's order.

“I am appreciative of the governor’s gesture starting to allow Michiganders to go back to work and legally continue some recreation activities," Cole said. "I am continuing to call on Gov. Whitmer to allow construction and real estate to continue in this state.”

While the Small Business Association of Michigan applauded Whitmer's latest order, it urged she adopt the latest federal guidance on "critical infrastructure workers" issued by the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Instead, she has been relying on older guidance from March 19.

The federal agency's guidance on March 28 added workers, including housing construction laborers, 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 governor continued to defend her order against criticism.

"As hard as this moment is for us right now, as isolated as we feel, as stressed as we are about getting back to work, reopening up businesses, we know that if we do it too fast, a second wave is likely," Whitmer said. "And that would be even more devastating than the moment that we are in."

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, said Friday her department would keep monitoring the data closely, attributing the leveling off of positive cases to the social distancing and other restrictions in place. 

Through Thursday, Michigan had more than 36,600 cases of COVID-19 and recorded nearly 3,100 deaths from the illness — the third most deaths of any state in the country. 

Khaldun said the state hit a high point in testing Wednesday, surpassing 7,400 daily tests for the first time. However, public health experts say the state needs to ramp up to 15,000 tests a day for a more comprehensive picture of the virus' spread, she noted.

The state is now requiring skilled nursing facilities to report suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases to the state health department. So far two-thirds of them have reported a total 2,218 cases, with 75% of those in southeastern Michigan, Khaldun said.

Whitmer's previous restrictions had prompted a protest called Operation Gridlock last week at the Capitol, when more than 4,000 demonstrators rallied to oppose her tightened restrictions, including the ban on motorized boating, trips to vacation homes and in-person purchases of gardening and home improvement supplies at big-box stores.

There is debate over whether Whitmer would need legislative approval to extend the stay-home order past April 30, and the governor on Friday repeated a threat to veto any bill that attempts to curtail her emergency powers.

"The political conversation that is happening in the Capitol right now is not something that I'm spending a lot of energy on because I'll tell you every unnecessary trip out of the house, every unnecessary close contact with another person threatens to continue spreading COVID-19," Whitmer said. 

"I find it odd that the Legislature has chosen to congregate against all the best practices, against the spirit of the Stay Home, Stay Safe order." 

She said lawmakers should be focused on "making sure that people who've lost their jobs have access to health care, if they're doing anything."

Republican legislators have argued the governor needs their approval to extend the stay home order under the 1976 Emergency Management Act, but legal advisers have argued that a 1945 law allows her to extend it unilaterally. Critics have contended the 1945 law only applies to riots. 

However, to extend liability protections for health care workers — a priority Whitmer has highlighted — the governor would need legislative approval under the Emergency Management Act. 

The GOP-led Legislature convened Friday to approve a resolution to create an oversight committee to assess Whitmer's handling of the pandemic in Michigan. 

"I'm not going to sign a new bill that takes authority away from me or from any future governor," Whitmer said.

"The powers of the executive office are incredibly important, especially in times of crisis where lives are on the line."