Whitmer warns she may toughen mask requirements after COVID-19 cases tick up

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged residents Thursday to wear masks to stem the spread of COVID-19 and cautioned that the state is considering making mask requirements tougher as new cases of the virus increase. 

During a press conference in Lansing, Whitmer suggested people who oppose masks wear ones with political statements printed on them that say, "I hate masks." And she emphasized the state’s current policy requires people to wear face coverings in enclosed public spaces. 

“We are reviewing that requirement and considering whether or not we need to take this a step further to strengthen compliance,” she said. "Because we cannot let our guard down. We cannot afford to play loose with the rules."

The governor made the comments Thursday as health officials cautioned that Michigan is nearing a "tipping point" with the spread of COVID-19 and as this week is on pace to bring the most new cases of the virus since May.

Whitmer said in response to a question that she is looking at taking more steps in the coming days that would "encourage" better compliance with the mask requirement.

A sign at a restaurant in downtown Lansing near the Michigan Capitol tells people to wear masks until they are seated on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

Under a current executive order, a Michigan resident must wear a face covering over their nose and mouth "when in any enclosed public space, unless the individual is unable medically to tolerate a face covering."

There are currently no penalties for violating the requirement, according to Attorney General Dana Nessel's Office.

Whitmer said the "last thing" she wants to do is to be doling out "lots of penalties." The governor said her administration is examining the best ways to encourage compliance.

Businesses are asking for tougher rules on masks so they can point to them as the “law of the land" to enforce the policy better, Whitmer said.

“Right now, it is required and, for some reason, people don’t seem to know that," she said.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who's also a Democrat, escalated his state's mask policy Wednesday, requiring people to generally wear face coverings in outdoor public spaces when it is not practical to socially distance.

On Tuesday, Whitmer told CNN that Michigan would impose new restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of the virus if its COVID-19 numbers continue to grow. She said she would be "prepared to take heat" over it.

"We're going to continue to monitor the numbers," the governor said Tuesday. "If they keep moving up, we're going to dial back if we have to. And it's the last thing any of us wants."

How COVID cases are trending

Michigan had a six-week high for newly confirmed infections last week, surpassing 2,500 cases during the week ending July 4. This week is on pace to beat last week's total.

The average number of new cases for the past seven days is up to 430 a day from an average of 338 a day for the previous seven-day period, according to state data.

The coronavirus positivity rate in Michigan — the percentage of those testing positive for the virus out of those tested overall — is relatively low at 3.6% as of Wednesday but increasing. Last week's positivity rate was 2.8%.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said Michigan has experienced increasing cases for about three weeks with some areas of the state experiencing larger rates of increase than others. She flagged the Grand Rapids region as having the highest rate of new cases in the state. 

Michigan's situation isn’t as dire as it was in the spring but is “not looking so good," Khaldun said. Deaths and hospitalizations tied to the virus remain low, she said, but added that deaths tend to increase after cases increase. It’s likely the death and hospitalization numbers will go up in the coming weeks, she said. 

“There is still time for us to keep this curve down,” Khaldun said.

The Whitmer administration's warnings came as the president and chief executive of the Henry Ford Health System said Michigan is at a "tipping point" in its fight against COVID-19 four months after confirming its first cases of the virus. 

"The combination of rising case counts and declining vigilance by many is placing our state at a tipping point in our battle with this disease,” Henry Ford's Wright Lassiter III said.  "We cannot become complacent. We’ve come too far to yield hard fought gains now."

A national nonprofit that's been monitoring the spread of COVID-19 says Michigan is at a high risk of an outbreak, less than a month after listing the state as on track to contain the virus. COVID Act Now, a group of technologists, epidemiologists, health experts and public policy leaders, moved the state into the category, listing the state's infection rate as high.

"On average, each person in Michigan with COVID is infecting 1.14 other people," the website reads. "As such, the total number of active cases in Michigan is growing at an unsustainable rate. If this trend continues, the hospital system may become overloaded. Caution is warranted."

Whitmer sets new rules

Whitmer also announced Thursday that she’s directed the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to develop rules to require implicit bias training as part of the skills necessary for licensing, registration and renewal of licenses for health care professionals. 

The Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, which Whitmer created in April, recommended the training, according to the governor’s office. 

 “COVID-19 has had a disparate impact on people of color due to a variety of factors, and we must do everything we can to address this disparity,” Whitmer said in a statement. “The evidence shows that training in implicit bias can make a positive difference, so today we are taking action to help improve racial equity across Michigan's health care system.

 “That’s why my staff has begun this kind of training and every member of my team, including me, will complete this type of training on an annual basis.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

The news briefing occurred after Michigan reported on Wednesday 11 new coronavirus deaths and confirmed 610 new cases, the highest single-day case count in seven weeks.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has tracked 67,683 cases of COVID-19 and 6,024 deaths through Thursday.

 As cases trend upward in Michigan and across the country, Whitmer said Wednesday she's "concerned" about schools reopening to in-person instruction in the fall. The Democratic governor's comments came after Republican President Donald Trump earlier in the day said he may "cut off funding" if schools don't reopen in the fall.

"As a parent, as a governor, I want to get our kids back in in-person instruction," Whitmer told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "But we can't do it if it's not safe to. That's why the actions today really matter."

The country needs to do better with "fundamentals," including mask wearing, testing supplies and tracing the contacts of those who test positive for COVID-19, she said.

"I am not sending kids and our education workforce into our schools unless it's safe," Whitmer added during the interview. "It's that simple."

On Thursday, the governor also issued a new executive order, outlining workplace safety guidelines for meatpacking plants. The plants, where employees work closely to one another, have proven to be hot spots for COVID-19, Whitmer said.

The order says meat and poultry processing plants must conduct daily entry screening protocols for employees, must space employees out at least six feet apart and must require employees to wear face coverings except when removal is necessary to eat or drink. They must also adopt sick leave policies that discourage employees from entering the workplace while sick.


Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.