'COVID-19 does not care about a court order,' Whitmer says at town hall

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer defended Tuesday issuing emergency rules during the pandemic and vowed to keep working to prevent the deadly virus from spreading, even after the state Supreme Court struck down a law she said gave her the authority.

"I'm very concerned about people dropping their guard and thinking the state Supreme Court decision means you don’t have to worry about COVID anymore," Whitmer said.

"Here’s the news: COVID-19 does not care about a court order. COVID-19 does not care about a legislative calendar. It doesn’t care that we’re all tired of dealing with this. It is a continual threat."

The governor and two of her administration officials discussed the crisis during a virtual town hall Tuesday night on Fox 2, fielding questions from viewers about their response as well as new developments.

The forum came four days after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled a law Whitmer has used to issue executive orders in battling the coronavirus required the Republican-controlled Legislature's approval, which lawmakers did not provide after April 30. Another law delegated too much legislative authority to the executive branch, making it unconstitutional, the court ruled in a 4-3 decision.

As uncertainty lingers about the measures Whitmer implemented, her team has asked the court for clarification and declare the ruling doesn't take effect until Oct. 30. Without the "transition," Michigan workers and their families could lose unemployment benefits and "critical measures meant to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus" would "immediately lapse," the governor's office said this week.

When Fox 2 host Roop Raj asked about the next step, Mark Totten, Whitmer's chief legal counsel, said: "We are moving as quickly as possible to make sure that we can keep the protections in place that are going to be necessary to restrain this virus to keep people safe, to continue saving lives.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a virtual town hall event hosted by WJBK (Fox 2) on Oct. 6, 2020.

"And in some cases that will be other sources of power that the governor, that the various department heads that she appoints, have in state government."

Totten cited the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issuing an order Monday that includes maintaining mask requirements and limitations on gatherings.

Those measures are important as cases rise in the state, said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan's chief medical officer.

Earlier Tuesday, the state health department confirmed 903 new cases and 22 deaths linked to the illness. Michigan's known caseload now stands at 129,826 since March, and deaths have reached 6,838.

"We don’t know about the long-term health consequences of having this disease," Khaldun said. "There’s still much to learn and we should still be very vigilant when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19."

Whitmer called the more than 100 executive orders she issued since the virus emerged "the backbone of our response" and involved bipartisan talks as well as reliance on health experts.

"It is incumbent on the chief executive officer of every state in the nation to make quick decisions when lives are on the line, and that is exactly what we have done," she said.

"... We have worked so hard to push our COVID numbers down. We’ve saved thousands of lives and our economy is in the top 10 in the nation in terms of states that have an economic rebound in the face of COVID. We're in a stronger place than most other states are. 30,000 tests a day. We're ramping up our tracing capabilities. We know that our positivity rates are lower than most other states… and our region is one of the stronger regions in the country.

"All of that is in jeopardy now with this Supreme Court decision."

The Supreme Court decision was based on a lawsuit brought by medical centers suing over the governor's ban on non-essential procedures.

Among the orders the Friday ruling affected was an expansion of unemployment benefits. Whitmer repeated her call for state legislators to end their October recess and return to the Capitol to pursue a deal.

"They say that they’re ready to work with me on this. I welcome that and I hope that they get back to town real quick because these employment benefits are in jeopardy," she said.

State Senate leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, have announced their chambers will be in session this week. The Senate returns Thursday. The House returns Tuesday, the first day representatives could vote on legislation approved by the Senate on Thursday.

Shirkey has said the state should shift its approach to the pandemic away from mandating actions, like mask wearing, and encourage and inform residents instead, asserting Saturday: "There will be no caucus support in the Senate, at least, for state mandates for things like masks."