Michigan business groups urge no blanket stay-at-home order

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Chamber of Commerce and other business groups are warning Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about potential repercussions of a blanket stay-at-home order that would force employers to temporarily halt operations.

Governors in California, Illinois and New York have already issued orders to keep people at home unless they have essential reasons for leaving in order to stem the spread of COVID-19. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Sunday announced that he will enact an order to stay at home starting Tuesday. Supporters of the orders say they are key necessary to combat a virus that could overwhelm hospitals. On Friday, Whitmer said Michigan was not at the point "where a shutdown is needed."

Michigan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rich Studlety talks road funding on May 28, 2019.

Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber, wrote a letter to Whitmer on Friday recommending, "at this time," against an order "that most if not all 877,000 businesses in Michigan should be closed while a select few are allowed to stay open."

"We cannot risk a disruption in the supply chain or a break in the distribution cycle," Studley wrote. "In addition, many businesses have non-interruptible operations and those operations need to be protected as we move forward.

"Finally, we would urge you to allow businesses to continue operations unless there is a high public health risk to employees or the general public."

For many businesses, an order to cease operations on anything less than 72 hours notice "would be impractical and impose severe hardship on the company’s employees, customers and operations," continued the letter, which was released on Saturday.

"As governors in other states are considering or have issued 'shelter-in-place' or 'stay-at-home” orders, we strongly urge you that you approach any similar order for Michigan as a last resort," Studley added.

The Small Business Association of Michigan and the Detroit Regional Chamber joined the Michigan Chamber on Saturday in cautioning against a broad stay-at-home order.

"Identifying ‘essential services’ is not as easy as government officials may think," said Brian Calley, former lieutenant governor and president of the Small Business Association of Michigan. "Just keeping the food supply effectively operating under the best of circumstances requires thousands of economic activities that span the globe to work efficiently.

"It is not likely that the state could anticipate and exempt all the economic activities required to keep the shelves stocked."

Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, argues against a stay-at-home order in a Friday, March 20, 2020, letter to Gov. Gretchen  Whitmer.

Likewise, Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, argued that many businesses "deemed unessential are able to safely operate within social distancing guidelines."

"If public health authorities deem a 'broader shelter in place' order is warranted, we urge the State to allow ample time for business operations to safely cease and allow businesses that pose little risk, or provide important products and services, to remain open within public health guidelines," Baruah said.

Whitmer told The Detroit News on Thursday that she was not considering ordering residents to shelter in place in the near future.

"I am not. I want to be very clear about that. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about that lately,” the governor said in a Thursday interview.

But businesses are concerned that as COVID-19 spreads, Whitmer may have to reconsider. On Saturday and Sunday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced nearly 500 new cases had been confirmed in the state, pushing the cumulative total to 1,035.

Whitmer has already issued orders to shutter Michigan's schools, ban public gatherings of more than 50 people and to close bars, movie theaters and dine-in service at restaurants.

The efforts to limit the spread of the virus have had negative economic effects already. From Monday through Wednesday, more than 55,000 Michigan residents filed unemployment claims, a 1,500% increase over what would normally be expected, according the state.

In an interview on Friday, Studley said the Michigan Chamber had been receiving frequent calls from panicked businesses trying to keep their workers employed during the health crisis. An order that people stay at home would make a bad economic situation worse, he argued.

Others see the matter differently. The Committee to Protect Medicare, a political group of doctors that's led by a Michigan doctor, called for a national shelter-in-place order on Friday night and has asked business groups to support the idea.

Twitter profile photo for Dr. Rob Davidson

Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency physician from Spring Lake who unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House as a Democrat in 2018, is executive director of the Committee to Protect Medicare.

“We cannot afford to allow COVID-19 to spread unchecked," Davidson said in a statement. "We must do everything we can to keep as many people as possible physically separated from each other."

In response to Michigan Chamber's letter, Davidson said business groups should "listen to medical professionals because the science, facts and evidence are clear."

“The growing consensus among doctors, front line medical professionals and public health experts agrees that we have come to the point where COVID-19 will continue its rapid spread, overwhelm hospitals and put lives at risk, including those needing care not related to COVID-19,  unless we enforce social distancing by keeping people in their homes," Davidson added.