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House tells Whitmer to ease COVID restrictions for more federal relief

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Five days before the official start of session, Michigan House leadership on Friday appeared to draw a line in the sand with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over the administration's continued restrictions on restaurants. 

Rep. Thomas Albert, the incoming chairman for the House Appropriations Committee, said the governor must move toward loosening restrictions on Michigan's economy "before the Legislature can have meaningful conversations about the next steps in allocating federal COVID-19 relief funds."

"As the 101st Legislature prepares to convene next week, I am counting on the governor to be a full partner with lawmakers as mandated by our Constitution," said Albert, R-Lowell. "I fully intend to employ the checks and balances required in our system of government. We will not simply hand over billions of taxpayer dollars to extend the current way of governing.”

Albert was appointed chairman by the House's new leadership, Speaker-elect Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell.

Congress in December approved another $900 billion in COVID-19 relief, sending more funding to Michigan for a $300 per week boost to federal unemployment benefits, Paycheck Protection Program loans, vaccines, testing, schools and universities. 

An estimated $3.7 billion of that spending will go to Michigan, where it will be allocated by the Legislature, according to a House spokesman. 

Whitmer bashed the Republican lawmaker’s statement, noting the federal relief dollars in question include $90 million for vaccine deployment and $575 million to support COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and mitigation efforts. 

“Maybe, they don’t know what all is in that,” Whitmer said. “So let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.” 

Lawmakers shouldn’t be trying to negotiate away public health measures while holding the federal relief dollars hostage, she said.

“I am sure that the representative isn’t implying that they would withhold hundreds of millions of dollars for vaccinations, for testing, for education for our kids, for eviction relief,” Whitmer said.

Restaurants have been closed to indoor dining since Nov. 18 and are scheduled to remain so through Jan. 15. Other business restrictions put in place in November as Michigan's COVID-19 case numbers peaked have since been loosened. 

Most Michigan restaurants have been closed to indoor dining for more than 135 days since March. 

At the time of the November indoor dining ban, restaurants pleaded to continue services in part because at that time they accounted for about 4% of total recorded outbreaks in Michigan. The state noted restaurants may comprise a higher percentage but weren't appearing in the data because it was more difficult to trace an outbreak to a restaurant than it was to a nursing home or school.

As the restrictions have been extended, lawmakers and other businesses and restaurant have asked Whitmer's administration for clear metrics that would help to determine which benchmarks would need to be met to reopen. 

Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said the state would look at decreases in COVID cases, test positivity rate, hospitalizations and deaths to determine safe reopening plans. But the state has not given benchmarks within those categories that would allow for reopening. 

Albert said Friday the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic can no longer hinge on one person. 

“It’s difficult to properly allocate relief funds when the governor still has not informed Michiganders when or under what conditions we can have our freedoms back," he said. "What Michigan needs is clarity and hope, and we’re not getting either from the governor.”

Whitmer is scheduled to give a COVID-19 response briefing at 1:30 p.m. Friday.

The Legislature last month appropriated about $465 million in supplemental spending for COVID-related needs throughout the state, but Whitmer vetoed a large chunk of the bipartisan spending because she disapproved of a $220 million allocation for the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. 

Whitmer said the funding amounted to a "giveaway" to businesses that are supposed to fund the trust fund. But her veto of the money also triggered a cancellation of extended unemployment benefits — from a maximum of 20 weeks to 26 weeks — for new jobless aid applicants. So the current maximum is 20 weeks.

The Legislature and Whitmer have yet to resolve the issue. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

Staff writer Craig Mauger contributed.