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Michigan Senate leader says he offered to appear with Whitmer to encourage masks

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate's Republican leader Mike Shirkey said Tuesday he unsuccessfully offered to appear in a public service announcement with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to encourage mask use.

In an interview, the conservative lawmaker argued that having the GOP-controlled Legislature adopt the same statewide mask mandate currently imposed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services would be "counterproductive."

"People are fatigued from being overrun by illogical mandates," Shirkey said. "Right now, the best thing to do is inform, inspire and then give them calls to action, where they can actually own it and be part of it, versus feeling like they're being talked down to."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake

On Sunday night, as a COVID-19 case surge continued to strike Michigan, Whitmer's administration announced a new three-week order to suspend in-person instruction at high schools and colleges, halt indoor dining at restaurants and close some businesses, including movie theaters and casinos.

The restrictions, which take effect Wednesday, drew praise from some national public health experts, including Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This is exactly the kind of action that can best balance saving lives and preserving livelihoods," Frieden tweeted. "We know how to bring the economy back to life. We don't know how to bring people back to life."

This week, Whitmer has criticized the GOP Legislature for not taking legislative action to combat the jump in cases and hospitalizations — Michigan reported a record 44,019 new infections last week — and not adopting a statewide mandate on masks in public places.

While the mask requirement is in place through an order by the state health department, the governor has contended it deserves the Legislature's "stamp of approval."

"This is the law under epidemic orders, but we do think that it would be helpful to our health, our safety and our economy if it was codified in a bipartisan way by the Legislature," Whitmer said earlier this month.

In a Tuesday statement, Whitmer's spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the only plans they've heard from Shirkey involve public service announcements and "herd immunity."

"The governor is ready to collaborate with the legislature once they return from their hunting break, and once they start passing serious legislation to address the urgent public health crisis facing our state," Brown said. "She will remain focused on listening to health experts and taking action to avoid overwhelmed hospitals and death counts like we saw in the spring."

On Tuesday, Shirkey said people in the state had lost confidence in mandates after dozens of executive orders Whitmer issued in the spring. Those orders were imposed, in part, through a state law that was struck down by the Michigan Supreme Court on Oct. 2. A mandate from the Legislature would be "counterproductive" and "redundant," he said.

"It's just political gamesmanship to call for a statewide legislative mandate for masks," Shirkey said.

The Senate GOP leader pushed back on Whitmer's argument that Republicans have done nothing to respond to the virus. He said the Legislature has approved some of her executive orders, including an extension of jobless benefits and an expansion of COVID-19 testing services.

Lawmakers are currently examining ways to help with hospital capacity concerns, Shirkey said. About a dozen Senate Republicans will be appearing in public service announcements on COVID-19, he added.

Shirkey said he offered to stand with the governor in a public service announcement asking people to wear masks when they leave their homes and "consider" limiting family and social gatherings during the holidays. 

"it would be more effective to appeal at the personal level instead of trying to do something as over-the-top as a mandate," Shirkey said.

Whitmer said Monday that Republicans had offered nothing in terms of actions to take in response to the COVID-19 surge other than public service announcements.

"They've been very involved," she said of Republicans' participation in behind-the-scenes discussions. "They still haven't done anything."

cmauger@detroitnews.com