Whitmer, Nessel indicate support for Biden vaccine mandate

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer indicated Wednesday that she supported President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate but was wary of its effect on the state workforce — her first public endorsement of the controversial policy since it was announced in September.

Whitmer's comments come days after a federal appeals court panel allowed Biden's mandate for larger private employers to move ahead and two days after Attorney General Dana Nessel also broke her silence on the mandate and expressed support. 

"I appreciate what President Biden is trying to accomplish," Whitmer told reporters Wednesday. "It’s about saving lives. It’s about getting more people vaccinated. If we’re successful on those fronts, it’s going (to be) to everyone’s benefit.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer indicated Wednesday that she supported President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate but was wary of its effect on the state workforce — her first public endorsement of the controversial policy since it was announced in September.

Biden's mandate would require private companies with more than 100 employees to require workers to get vaccinated or wear masks and get tested regularly. Michigan would have to implement similar if not stricter standards for state and local government employees. 

More: Biden tries COVID cajoling, avoids new decrees that divide

The GOP-led Michigan Legislature submitted a brief in federal court last month in support of a multi-state effort seeking to halt the policy. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a statement the mandate would be "the death knell of the American dream."

Whitmer said her comments to business leaders in Montcalm County earlier this month indicating Biden's coronavirus vaccine mandate was "a problem for all of us" were not meant as criticism. The governor made the comments when asked about the possibility of worker shortages increasing because of the requirement, the Greenville Daily News reported.

She told business leaders at the time that the threat of losing state workers was one of the reasons she hadn't proposed a state mandate and that the state was "waiting to see what happens in court."

On Wednesday, less than a week after the appellate decision on Biden's mandate, Whitmer clarified her earlier statements. 

"The state of Michigan employs 50,000 people and I was sharing with these business folks the same concerns that I have," Whitmer said Wednesday. "…The state of Michigan workforce is very similar to the rest of the workforce. We’ve got a chunk of people that haven’t been vaccinated, may not ever get vaccinated. What does that mean for our ability to deliver services for the people of our state? That was the concern that I had. I was not criticizing the Biden mandate.”

Whitmer said it's unclear how many unvaccinated state employees would be affected by the mandate, but she noted the state would need to work with several labor unions to implement the rules. 

"We've got a number of labor unions with whom we negotiate terms of employment," Whitmer said. "As I think about some industries where they've got to negotiate with one. We've got multiple...that will impact compliance and ability going forward."

Tori Sachs, executive director for the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, called Whitmer's Wednesday comments a "complete 180" on the mandate and speculated it was due to political pressures.  

“What political bargain did she strike with President Biden to justify endorsing this reckless mandate over her own concerns that it would negatively affect thousands of Michigan businesses and 48,000 employees of the state government?" Sachs said in a statement.

“Encouraging vaccination and sharing scientific data is a far better approach than imposing Federal mandates. Michigan’s economy has struggled to recover from Gov. Whitmer’s COVID orders, and enforcing President Biden’s vaccine mandate will make the problems facing our state worse.” 

Nessel on Monday said she was supportive of Biden's vaccine mandate effort and was “apoplectic” over elected leaders who failed to encourage residents to get vaccinated.

"If it's my job to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the residents of this state then I think everyone ought to get vaccinated unless they have a medical reason that prevents them from doing so," Nessel said. “...Vaccine mandates have been around for a very long time. This is nothing new.”

Nessel said vaccines are the fastest track to normalcy and said if the opportunity to file in court in support of the mandate on the matter came up, she would likely do so.

“I am not going to join a lawsuit attempting to stop the vaccine mandate from going into effect,” she said. “I think it’s irresponsible and reckless for the AGs who have.”

A recent poll commissioned by the Detroit Regional Chamber found 54% of Michigan voters opposed the mandate while 41% supported it. Independents opposed the mandate 58% to 34%, according to the survey of 600 registered voters between Nov. 29 and Dec. 3. 

Pollster Richard Czuba noted that Whitmer's approval numbers in the same survey improved slightly, 48% approve to 44% disapprove; while Biden's stayed low, at 39% approve and 53% disapprove. The numbers, Czuba said, paralleled Independent voters' position on the mandate. 

At the time, Czuba noted the differences between Biden and Whitmer's numbers may be closely linked to the vaccine mandate, Czuba said. 

"If you've noticed, Gov. Whitmer has pulled away from the mandate issue and her numbers are much stronger as a result," Czuba said.

But Whitmer on Wednesday said her policy positions related to COVID-19 had nothing to do with politics. 

"If I was driven by politics, I never would have been able to make a single decision because every decision has a political downside," Whitmer said. "What I have been driven by is trying to save lives”