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Gov. Whitmer labels Michigan Senate leader an 'anti-masker' as tension escalates

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer suggested Tuesday the Republican state Senate leader Mike Shirkey is an "anti-masker" as she also called on lawmakers to return to the Capitol to work with her on responding to COVID-19.

The governor's comments came during a press conference four days after the Michigan Supreme Court rejected a law that allowed her to take unilateral actions to combat the virus without the approval of the GOP-controlled Legislature. The ruling threw dozens of executive orders Whitmer has used to combat to the virus into jeopardy, including an expansion of unemployment benefits and workplace safety standards.

"I am here in the Capitol today. The Legislature's not," Whitmer said during the press briefing. "That's why I am hoping they will cancel their October recess and get back to work."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs the state's new budget into on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020.

"I am ready to work with the Legislature," she said at another point. "But I am never going to negotiate when it comes to doing the right thing and protecting people's health."

Hours later, Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, announced their chambers will be in session in the coming days. The Senate will back be Thursday. The House will return Tuesday, the first day representatives could vote on legislation approved by the Senate on Thursday.

"The exact legislative agenda has yet to be determined, but the Senate and House are working together right now to review the governor’s numerous executive orders and determine which issues require immediate attention," according to a joint statement by Shirkey and Chatfield.

"While the governor spends her time on the campaign trail and taking political jabs at legislative partners, we are putting together a smarter plan of action to provide certainty to Michigan families and move this state forward.” 

Among the "jabs," a reporter asked the governor about Shirkey's comments that the Senate Republican caucus wouldn't support a mandate requiring people to wear masks going forward.

"I think it is concerning that the top Republican in Michigan government is an anti-masker and doesn't want to encourage and require everyone across the state to mask up," Whitmer said Tuesday.

Shirkey has previously encouraged people to wear masks but has voiced opposition to a statewide requirement. On April 3, early in the pandemic, he said wearing a mask is something people can take control of to limit the spread of the virus.

"I still think we have a responsibility to consider the health of those around us," he said Saturday, adding, however, "There will be no caucus support in the Senate, at least, for state mandates for things like masks."

Whitmer issued an executive order requiring masks in indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor spaces on July 10. It was one of dozens of orders that were effectively thrown out as the Michigan Supreme Court struck down the governor's unilateral emergency powers in a ruling on Friday.

The court unanimously said one law the governor has used to issue the orders required the Republican-controlled Legislature's approval, which lawmakers didn't provide after April 30. Another law delegated too much legislative authority to the executive branch, making it unconstitutional, the court ruled in a 4-3 decision.

On Tuesday, during a press conference on voting, Whitmer said the court decision will lead to uncertainty, disruption and more COVID-19 cases in the state.

Her administration has begun issuing new orders through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which has the ability to respond to an epidemic to ensure the "continuation of essential public health services and enforcement of health laws."

The department has re-instituted mask requirements and limitations on gatherings. More orders will be released in the coming days, Whitmer said.

"Until we have some comfort that we've gotten our arms around this disease, they will be extended," she said of the departmental orders.

As of Monday, Michigan reported 128,923 COVID-19 cases and 6,816 deaths linked to it.

The department will not be able to re-institute all of the actions the governor took in response to the pandemic. For certain orders, like an extending of unemployment benefits from 20 weeks maximum to 26 weeks, the Legislature will have to act.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, speaks during the "American Patriot Rally-Sheriffs speak out" event at Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids in this May 18, 2020, file photo.

Chatfield told reporters Monday that it was time for a "partnership" between the governor and the GOP-controlled Legislature. In a tweet Tuesday, he added that lawmakers have been in "session all during Covid, yet the Governor has refused to work with us."

"Now she’s claiming we’re not in town while she’s working, though yesterday she campaigned all day for House Democrats," Chatfield said. "The hypocrisy is astounding."

Shirkey said Saturday he is encouraging fellow senators to keep their schedules "flexible" in case extra session days are needed to replace orders that are no longer valid.