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Whitmer: COVID-19 spread could force closure of auto plants, other businesses

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Correction: The state relies in part on a case-to-population formula from the Center for American Progress in discerning whether to reopen. The name of the organization was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer indicated Wednesday that the continued operation of auto manufacturing plants could be in jeopardy if Michigan is unable to curb the recent growth of COVID-19 cases. 

Auto manufacturing plants were shut down for nearly eight weeks earlier this year at the height of the pandemic, before they began reopening between May 11 and May 18. 

But Whitmer cautioned those reopenings could be reversed during a press conference in which she urged mask usage. 

"If Michiganders don’t mask up when we’re going out in public, cases could rise, and we could be forced to close down more of our businesses, including auto manufacturing plants that employ thousands of Michigan workers, jobs that our whole economy depends on," Whitmer said Wednesday.

The state is at a "turning point" in its fight against another surge in COVID-19 cases, Whitmer said, with new cases increasing a rate of more than 20 cases per 1 million people a day in Detroit, Kalamazoo, Jackson and some Upper Peninsula regions.

In addition to auto plants, the continued operation of other businesses and in-person instruction in the fall depend on the state's success in controlling that growth. She noted, for many schools, the start of the year is Sept. 8, 55 days away. 

"It is incumbent on all Michiganders to do our part," Whitmer said. "...This is what’s at stake if we want to keep our kids back in school and keep our economy engaged.”

In response to the governor's warning, General Motors Co. spokesman Jim Cain said: "We know how to keep people safe at work. Our extensive safety protocols are working and COVID-19 is not spreading in our facilities. The same safety protocols that keep safe at work can people safe at home and as they go about their day-to-day lives." 

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles respond: "Together with the UAW, we continue to remind our employees about the importance of following recommended guidelines and taking precautions while outside of the plant."

Kelli Felker, global manufacturing and labor communications manager for Ford Motor Co., said: "Working closely with the UAW and external experts in infectious disease and epidemiology, we have developed safety standards to protect our workforce. One of those protocols is a requirement that everyone in a Ford facility wear a face mask at all times; we are strictly enforcing our protocols."

Additionally, she said, Ford and the UAW are encouraging employees "to follow similar safety protocols in their communities" in a campaign called Safe at Home.

Automakers started reopening plants across North America the week of May 18 following the opening of their Michigan-based suppliers the week of May 11. 

The state uses cases per million as a gauge to determine risk when assessing reopening plans, Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said. The Center for American Progress in "A National and State Plan to End the Coronavirus Crisis" noted rates below 20 cases per 1 million people as a relatively safe level to allow for the lifting of stay-home orders.

Whitmer urged residents to wear masks alongside Michigan State University women's basketball coach Suzy Merchant, University of Michigan women's basketball coach Kim Arico and MSU men's basketball coach Tom Izzo. 

Michigan State University basketball coach Tom Izzo, along with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, right, urges Michigan residents to wear masks in public.

Each of the coaches urged residents to "mask up."

“We need to make better decisions than we’ve made,” Izzo said. “...Listen to the leadership.”

The governor's message came a day after Whitmer extended the state of emergency through Aug. 11 citing an uptick in COVID-19 cases. 

The nearly month-long emergency extension issued Tuesday came as Michigan confirmed 584 new cases of the virus, six deaths linked to it and a 21% uptick in COVID-related hospitalizations compared to a week ago. The percentage increase represents a hike from 342 to 415. 

Michigan's added cases Tuesday pushed the statewide total to more than 70,000.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com