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Trump at debate: Michigan's COVID-19 restrictions were 'like a prison'

President Donald Trump compared restrictions aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan to a "prison" during Thursday night's presidential debate as he and Democrat Joe Biden laid out competing visions for responding to the virus.

Trump called for reopening the economy and said government's "cure" cannot be worse than the "problem itself." But Biden, the former vice president, said restrictions on businesses and social distancing should be in place if COVID-19 is spreading above certain rates in communities.

He contended that Trump's "ineptitude" led to the economic shutdown.

President Donald Trump gestures toward Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

But the Republican president then targeted states with Democratic governors, such as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, although she has received support from health experts for the steps she's taken to combat the virus.

"Take a look at what’s happening with your friend in Michigan, where her husband is the only one allowed to do anything," Trump said. "It’s been like a prison. Now, it was just ruled unconstitutional."

He was referring to the Michigan Supreme Court's effectively striking down the governor's use of emergency powers on Oct. 2 and Whitmer's husband, Marc Mallory. He sought to have his boat launched in May during the pandemic. Mallory called a company and asked whether the fact he was married to the governor could get his boat installed more quickly.

Whitmer said later that her husband had "made a failed attempt at humor" in asking for the installation of his boat to be sped up

Whitmer imposed strict policies, including a stay-at-home order, to try to halt the virus's spread in Michigan. In recent months, she had eased many of them before the court's ruling.

In June, researchers at Imperial College London and Oxford University found that states that were more successful at keeping people at home were also more successful at reducing the spread of COVID-19. And mobility decreased more in Michigan under Whitmer's stay-home orders than in any other Great Lakes states — or most states in the United States, according to the study. 

But Michigan is now experiencing upticks in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. On Thursday, the state reported 1,873 new cases of the virus and 43 new deaths linked to it. Last week was Michigan's highest week yet for new cases at 10,241.

"It is very possible that this is the beginning of a second wave," Michigan Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun said Oct. 13.

Overall, the state has confirmed 152,862 cases and 7,129 deaths. As of last week, 109,539 people in Michigan were considered "recovered."

Biden argued Thursday night that it was Trump's "ineptitude" in responding to the virus that led to the economic shutdown in the country.

“I am going to shut down the virus, not the country," the Delaware Democrat said.

If the virus begins spreading above a "certain level" in a community, Biden said he would require more social distancing and institute restrictions, like closing bars and gymnasiums

“When you do open, give the people the capacity to be able to open and have the capacity to do it safely," he said, adding that schools should have more teachers and added ventilation.

Trump continued to argue that the country needs to be reopened.

"People are losing their jobs. They’re committing suicide. There’s depression, alcohol, drugs, at a level that nobody’s ever seen before," the president said.

Of Biden, he said, “He’ll close down the country if one person in our massive bureaucracy says we should close it down."

Biden said it wasn't true.

"We ought to be able to safely open, but they need resources to open,” he said.

Businesses need to be able to ensure proper social distancing and restaurants need Plexiglass dividers, Biden said, adding that the country also needs rapid COVID-19 testing.

Trump and Biden met Thursday for their second and final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville. The debate took place 12 days before the Nov. 3 election.

The moderator was NBC's Kristen Welker.

cmauger@detroitnews.com