Whitmer plans reopening steps, faces fight over emergency powers

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing  — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer outlined Monday her next steps for reopening the state's economy as a potential fight nears with the Republican-controlled Legislature over her emergency powers.

During a press conference, the Democratic governor said construction and other low-risk workplaces will soon see loosened restrictions. She provided few specifics but said in the "coming weeks," the state will re-engage additional industries after shutting down most businesses to stem the spread of COVID-19 on March 23.

Whitmer also announced she's seeking a 28-day extension of her emergency declaration from the Legislature, which is scheduled to meet on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Her declaration would otherwise expire Friday, but there's debate over what that would actually mean for her executive powers. Whitmer maintains that her emergency powers don't depend on an extension from the Legislature.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a press conference Thursday in Lansing.

"We will monitor public health, and we will measure our success every step of the way," Whitmer said of her plans. "We’ll also remain nimble enough to pull back when the data tells us that’s the prudent thing to do.”

But Republican lawmakers want a seat at the table when it comes to the plans for restarting the economy. Some want to see restrictions lifted more quickly. And they believe the governor needs them to grant her an extension.

A 28-day emergency declaration extension is not an option, multiple Republicans, including Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, said Monday. Barrett said he would only support an extension if it included a "serious limitation" on the types of executive orders governors can make unilaterally.

"There is no reason to cede absolute power to one person," Barrett said.

Likewise, Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, called a 28-day extension a non-starter. Johnson said some of his constituents want no extension and some manufacturers in the state are already losing contracts to competitors in other states that have made more aggressive moves to reopen operations.

"There’s some long-term damage here that we’ve got to get on top of," Johnson said.

The extension of an emergency declaration is different from the specific extension of the governor's stay-at-home order, which currently goes through May 15.

Under Michigan law, in times of emergency, governors have the ability to take unilateral steps to protect public health, like issuing a stay-at-home order.

Two laws provide these emergency powers. One, from 1976, requires the Legislature to approve an extension after 28 days. The other law, from 1945, doesn't.

"The emergency powers that I have as governor do not depend on an extension from the Legislature," Whitmer said Monday. "But the protections for our health care workers do ... It’s better for everyone if we work together to get this right.”

On that point, the 1976 law, which requires the Legislature's approval for extensions, specifically includes immunity protections for health care workers and first responders.

On April 7, the Legislature voted to extend Whitmer's emergency declaration by 23 days through April 30. The governor originally declared a state of emergency on March 10.

The Senate Republican Caucus has not reached consensus on action for an extension of the governor’s emergency declaration, said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, talks to reporters on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, amid a budget impasse inside the Capitol.

Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, have reached out to engage Whitmer in a discussion about conditions surrounding a possible extension, McCann added.

During a tele-town hall with the Detroit Regional Chamber on Monday, Shirkey said Republicans and Whitmer had a difference of opinion on "the urgency" to take certain actions to reopen the economy.

Evaluating industrial sectors

Along with residential and commercial construction, outdoor enterprises will be the next businesses to reopen, Whitmer said Monday. Her administration is also "carefully evaluating" reopening some industrial sectors, she said.

Whitmer said her decisions on reopening the state's economy would be guided by data and will come "gradually."

"There’s no hard and fast timeline here," she said. "As we set dates, we will continue to keep you informed."

The state has 38,210 confirmed cases of the virus and 3,407 deaths linked to it, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Monday's daily total for new cases was the lowest in more than a month.

Michigan has the seventh most cases among all U.S. states, according to tracking by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

On Monday, members of the governor's Michigan Economic Recovery Council also outlined recommendations for reopening the state's economy. Those recommendations included using a regional approach, reopening low-risk industries first and then moving to high-risk industries and instituting best practices for protecting workers.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's Michigan Economic Recovery Council detailed these potential regions for making decisions on reopening the state's economy on Monday, April 27, 2020.

Whitmer said she plans to bar retaliation against workers who want to stay home because they think they are sick or because a loved one is sick.

“Nobody in Michigan should lose their jobs for doing everything they can to protect their own health, the health of their families, the health of their colleagues in the workplace," the governor said.

Gerry Anderson, DTE's executive chairman who's co-chairing the recovery council, detailed best practices businesses can use to increase safety, including "daily symptom diaries" and frequent cleaning of equipment.

“Masks will be ubiquitous in almost every workplace in Michigan," Anderson said. "Gloves and face shields will be in widespread use as well.”

Being able to isolate positive cases of COVID-19 and tracing contacts those individuals had will be an essential skill for employers, Anderson added.

The recovery council, which features health experts and business and labor leaders, is meant to give Whitmer input on how best to reopen the state's economy.

The governor earlier Monday gave an interview with Politico, saying: "I would anticipate in the coming days, if our trajectory of hospitalizations continues to go down and our ability to test continues to go up, that we’ll go into the next low-risk category.

"And that might include some construction, for instance. It might include some additional outdoor enterprises that are currently forbidden."

On Friday, Whitmer extended her stay-at-home order through May 15 while lifting some of the restrictions.

The order generally requires people to stay inside their homes to prevent the spread of coronavirus unless they have essential reasons for leaving. But last week, Whitmer allowed individuals to travel between two residences in the state and permitted motorized boating and golfing.

She also permitted lawn services, garden shops, landscapers and nurseries to begin operating as long as they follow "enhanced" social-distancing rules.

"We had the strictest Stay Home, Stay Safe policy in the nation and last week, I loosened it a little bit," Whitmer said Monday morning. "This week, I’m going to lay out the criteria ... which we’re using to assess the inherent risk of a particular sector of our economy, the protocols necessary to bring down the risk and to start to move that dial a little bit.”

During the Politico interview, she also mentioned a potential regional approach to loosening restrictions. Some parts of the state don't have the same pressures that other parts do, she said.

"All of these factors go into the inherent risk, and that’s what will be driving decisions," Whitmer added.