Whitmer on 'Late Night': 'We've done the right thing' in COVID fight

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer believes her administration's efforts to combat COVID-19 have been successful and have spurred the gradual reopening of the state, she said in a talk show interview early Tuesday.

"The fact that people have taken this seriously has contributed to saving thousands of lives and keeping our hospital systems afloat," Whitmer told "Late Night" host Seth Meyers. "We are making steps to start to re-engage sectors of our economy. The Big Three went back to work today. It is a phase-in re-engagement, but we are starting to make progress. And I think people have to focus on the fact that we’re making these moves because we’ve done the right thing. We’ve just got to keep doing it so we can take the next forward step."

The governor showed up on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” early Tuesday, answering the host's questions ranging from reaction to President Donald Trump's jabs to being spoofed on "Saturday Night Live."

Much of her talk focused on the pandemic and its impact on Michigan.

The spot followed her announcement Monday that Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, which has had few cases of COVID-19, would partly reopen. Her plan would reopen retail businesses and offices in those regions starting Friday, including bars and restaurants, which will be required to operate at 50% capacity.

Also Monday, state health officials confirmed 24 deaths tied to the novel coronavirus, making it the ninth straight day with fewer than 100 new deaths reported in Michigan. Additionally, it was the fourth consecutive day that the state had fewer than 800 new cases of COVID-19, for a total of 51,915 known cases since reporting began, according to state data. 

The state ranks seventh in the nation in COVID-19 cases and fourth for deaths with 4,915 total — behind New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. 

Whitmer told Meyers the state had previously ranked higher in deaths and the virus "has hit us really hard," filling some hospitals to capacity. However, she noted the significance of autoworkers resuming work this week through coordinated efforts.

"...It can’t be a decision made in a vacuum. It has to be driven by the data. It has to be in concert with the UAW and the leaders of the Big Three," Whitmer said. "And that’s why it was really important that we are looking at the numbers, we’re listening to the epidemiologists and the public health experts. We’re developing the protocols to keep people safe in the workplace. All of these things have to come together because we’ve got to get this right. Lives are counting on it. Our economy is, as well. And so I think that we’re taking very smart steps forward. We’ve got to do this incrementally, though."

Whitmer has faced some criticism and even legal challenges to her executive orders aimed at stopping the spread of the virus. The restrictions have also sparked protests at the state Capitol.

Meyers asked about one that Whitmer has said featured Confederate flags, nooses and swastikas.

"I think it’s important for people to know that Michigan is a state of almost 10 million people and when you see those pictures, I don’t want people to think that’s really what the average person in Michigan is all about or what we are doing," she said. "The majority of people are doing the right thing, and because of it we’ve flattened our curve. We’ve saved thousands of lives. Yes, it is a tough time and yes, there's a lot of angst. And sure, I'm not universally agreed with. But even though those that disagree are staying home and doing the right thing because they know how serious this is."

Whitmer went on to say: "What you see at the Capitol are political rallies. ... That’s not what you see as you as go along Michigan, generally. It is an organized political event and that’s why I'm not going to get too caught up in it. I'm just going to stay focused on doing the right thing."

The governor's many appearances in national media during the pandemic have fueled speculation about a possible run to become vice president.

Meyers acknowledged Whitmer might be unable to divulge much about those plans but asked for her advice on how Democrats can win Michigan's electoral votes and the presidential election in November.

Whitmer pointed out Trump won the state by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016 and she gained the governor's seat two years later with a nearly 10-point margin. 

"It was an historic victory and I think that it was because I made sure to show up in all 83 counties," she said. "Now, I’m not saying that the presidential candidate needs to show up in all 83 counties, but you gotta show up. Because when you are actually talking to people, you don’t get distracted by things that don’t matter and issues that don’t matter. You stay focused on the things that do. My slogan was 'fix the damn road.' I didn’t poll-test that. I didn’t come up with that on my own. It came from conversation after conversation with people of the state who are frustrated with government that can’t even fix the roads.

"Now, of course we're sidelined COVID-19, and so that may still be my slogan. But the fact of the matter is: you gotta show up and you can’t take Michigan for granted."

On a lighter note, Whitmer told Meyers she found the recent SNL depiction "funny" and welcomed Detroit rapper Gmac Cash's new song praising the governor as "Big Gretch."

"I never knew how fond I could become of a phrase like Big Gretch, but I dig it," she said.