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Upton wants Whitmer to ease restrictions on motorized boating

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Michigan's most senior member of Congress is urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to pull back her restrictions on motorized boating during the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, a St. Joseph Republican, wrote to Whitmer on Thursday expressing concern about the limits on boating imposed under her expanded stay-home order. 

People fish in their boat within eye sight of Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Twp., Wednesday afternoon, March 25, 2020.

Jet skis, motorboats and other comparable watercraft are prohibited, while canoes, sailboats and kayaks are allowed, according to a "Frequently Asked Question" list based on the order. Fishing still is allowed, though no charter fishing.

Upton said recreational boating in Michigan has an economic impact of over $7.4 billion annually, supporting over 30,000 jobs and over 1,400 businesses.

"While we applaud your decision to allow public boating facilities to remain open and the use of self-propelled boats like kayaks or canoes, we ask that you consider scaling back the restrictions on motorized boating," Upton wrote. 

“With boating season quickly approaching, we believe that motorized boating can be done safely and responsibly while following social distancing and the CDC’s guidelines for COVID-19.”

Upton said families can use a small motorboat or a personal watercraft with minimal risk of coming into contact with others outside their household. 

Boating supports over 3,400 direct jobs in Upton's southwest Michigan district and more than 140 businesses, with over 70,000 registered boats, according to his office. The 6th Congressional District includes shoreline communities along Lake Michigan.

The state Department of Natural Resources said this month that the ban on motorized boats was an effort to reduce movement and contact among people to slow the spread of infection.

"The DNR has received many reports about heavy use of boat launches across the state and the subsequent congregation of people at these launches in violation of social distancing requirements, and in a manner that threatens public health," the DNR wrote on its website.

"In addition, people who use motorized watercraft typically need to procure secondary services for their craft, such as parts and gasoline, that could unnecessarily increase contact with others and spread disease."

The Michigan United Conservation Clubs this week said law enforcement is enforcing the ban including issuing criminal citations.  

The group has sued the state over the matter, seeking an injunction on the blanket ban by arguing it's unconstitutional.

“Michigan anglers and recreational boaters have a constitutional right to clear and unambiguous rules, especially when violation of those rules can be criminally charged,” said Grand Rapids attorney Aaron Phelps, who represents the group.

“Citizens can not be subject to criminal penalties based on arbitrary interpretations of a unilateral order or, worse, vague responses to so-called frequently asked questions.”

The group noted that electric motors also are banned, even though gas-powered off-road recreational vehicles may operate on trails across the state.

They also point out that kayak and canoes often are hauled by gas-powered vehicles to the water and use the same boat-access sites as motorboats.

Last week, more than 4,000 protesters gathered around the state Capitol in Lansing to protest what they argue is governmental overreach in the banning of certain commercial and personal activities.  

Whitmer tightened her stay-home executive order to also require stores to cordon off areas deemed non-essential — such as garden and home improvement zones — and banned people from traveling between vacation homes Up North.

mburke@detroitnews.com