Some Michigan lawmakers say 'no way' to session amid pandemic

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — With a sister hospitalized with COVID-19 and two colleagues who've tested positive, Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, said there's "no way" she'll be attending when the Michigan Legislature convenes a Tuesday session amid a pandemic.

Legislative leaders have created safety protocols, which include lawmakers having their temperatures taken, to ensure they're protected as they consider whether to extend Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency declaration. However, a growing group of lawmakers won't participate, citing concerns about spreading the virus.

"It makes no sense," Gay-Dagnogo said of the Legislature's plans.

The Michigan Capitol is pictured in December 2019.

Likewise, Rep. Brian Elder, D-Bay City, issued a Monday statement saying he also won't attend. Elder  mentioned Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, who died March 29 and whom family members believe had COVID-19.

"I cannot, in good conscience, travel to a place 100 miles from my home, where I will interact with representatives from the CV-19 hot zones of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, and then risk bringing that virus back home with me to Bay City," Elder said. "It seems foolhardy to do something that could put my community in jeopardy, especially in light of the pointless action that will take place."

In addition to Robinson's death, two Detroit lawmakers — Reps. Tyrone Carter and Karen Whitsett, both Democrats — have tested positive for COVID-19. On Monday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Michigan climbed to 17,221 with 727 deaths. Michigan has the third most cases of any state nationally.

House members will enter the chamber in groups of five, will be "encouraged" to have their temperatures taken and will be asked screening questions about COVID-19 symptoms, according to a House memo on procedures for the Tuesday session.

In the Senate, lawmakers will have their temperatures taken, will come in one or two at a time to check in during attendance before a voice vote is taken on the resolution on the emergency declaration. It’s likely few legislators will be on the floor during the vote to prevent the spread of the disease, said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

The Senate can't bar a senator with a high temperature from participating in session, McCann said. But she added that she believes "the senators are responsible individuals and would make the appropriate choice for the safety of their colleagues in the event they were found to be unwell."

"Sen. Shirkey has encouraged his caucus members to wear masks to session to comply with new recommendations," McCann added.

To extend the declaration, the Senate and the House will essentially need quorums, a majority of members, to sign in as present on Tuesday. Gideon D'Assandro, spokesman for House Republicans, said he was confident a quorum would be in attendance.

Heightening the tension over whether session should take place is that Democrats and Republicans are in a disagreement over the impact of what will occur in the Legislature.

Republicans say they plan to vote to extend Whitmer's March 10 state of emergency declaration by 23 days through the end of April. The resolution would not extend any of the executive orders Whitmer has issued, such as the stay-at-home order, but would prolong Whitmer’s authority to issue them. Republicans argue the declaration expires Tuesday.

However, Democrats argue that Republicans will actually only be extending the declaration by one day.

That's because Whitmer issued a new order Wednesday expanding the initial state of emergency and declaring a state of disaster for the first time. The state of disaster carries a new 28-day shelf life, which expires April 29, according to Democrats.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a televised update on COVID-19.

Whitmer, who's asked lawmakers to extend her declaration by 70 days, said Monday that her new order started a new 28-day clock.

"I am concerned about their health," Whitmer said of lawmakers holding the Tuesday session. "I am very concerned about any efforts to come back more than actually necessary."

During a teleconference with the Detroit Regional Chamber, House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, continued to argue that the 28-day clock expires Tuesday. Chatfield said the House chamber had been "fully sanitized" and people won't be allowed in the lobbies.

"We can get in. We can extend the state of emergency, continue giving the governor the tools she needs to help run our state," Chatfield said. "And I am going to continue partnering with her."

Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering.

Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, is one of the lawmakers who plans to attend the Tuesday session. He said he's "looking forward to getting back to work in Lansing." The Legislature hasn't met since March 17.

"The Legislature is where many voices are meant to be heard to solve problems," Maddock said. "Michigan needs to hear more voices, but sadly Gov. Whitmer only wants to listen to herself."

Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he plans to participate Tuesday if the session happens. As of Monday afternoon, Irwin said he still wasn't sure what would be voted on.

"I think that we’ve got a lot of essential workers out there who are putting themselves on the line on a regular basis," Irwin said. "I don’t think it’s too much for me to go in and vote tomorrow."

Other lawmakers won't be attendance. Some of them argue that session shouldn't happen at all. Others cited family health concerns. State Rep. Kevin Hertel, D-St. Clair Shores, and his wife will be having a baby in the coming days.

"It doesn’t make sense for my family for me to be there this week," Hertel said.

Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township, said she won't attend because it "would only serve to jeopardize the health and safety of the residents of Michigan."

"It’s unfathomable to me that Republican leaders continue to insist that the Legislature convene to extend a rescinded executive order," Brixie said in a statement.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, who represents the Upper Peninsula in the Senate, said he won't participate  because he believes the vote count will be sufficient to extend the declaration and because he has some vulnerable folks in his home.

"I think that it’s important that the Legislature gets involved because we’re out here doing the governor’s constituent work right now," McBroom said. "We’re hearing directly from the people and businesses and they’re demanding that their voices be considered in the decision making process."

Detroit News Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed