Michigan GOP leaders call for reopening schools, restaurant dining

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Republican leaders of the Michigan Legislature called for reopening in-person instruction at schools and indoor dining at restaurants Thursday, a day after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pushed for unity in her State of the State address.

During a press conference inside the Capitol, House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said his caucus wants students back in classrooms as quickly as possible. The decision is currently up to local districts to choose whether to offer in-person or virtual learning.

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In addition, both Wentworth and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, criticized a 25% capacity limit Whitmer's administration has put in place for restaurants and bars once they reopen for indoor dining on Feb. 1.

Jason Wentworth elbow-bumps Donna Lasinski as the lawmakers start the Michigan Legislature's 101st session at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

"This is about personal responsibility," Wentworth said. "It's not about saying, 'Well, I support 100% reopening.' It's about giving business owners the opportunity to survive."

Shirkey called the 25% capacity limit arbitrary in light of the Whitmer administration also requiring tables to be spaced out six feet apart.

"Put as many tables as you can six feet apart. Forget the capacity restriction," Shirkey said.

The press conference Thursday highlighted the remaining deep divides between the GOP-controlled Legislature and Michigan's Democratic governor over how best to respond to the pandemic. Since the state reported its first COVID-19 cases on March 10, Whitmer has said her administration is following science and data in issuing epidemic orders that limit gatherings and business activities. But Republicans have called for loosening the restrictions more quickly to boost the economy and to allow people to make decisions for themselves.

"The health of our economy is inextricably linked to the health of our people," Whitmer said during her address Wednesday night. "Effectively rebuilding our economy this year requires that we protect public health. That hurdle is cleared easier and quicker if we work together."

As of Wednesday, the state has reported 554,237 confirmed cases and 14,411 deaths linked to the virus. But 463,106 residents are considered recovered.

Michigan saw a surge in cases in November that spurred Whitmer's administration to suspend indoor dining at restaurants, in-person instruction at high schools and other businesses, like movie theaters. Since then, infection rates have dropped, and the administration has lifted many of the restrictions.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey talks to reporters on Sept. 11, 2019.

In recent weeks, Michigan has reported fewer new COVID-19 cases per population than neighboring states that have weaker restrictions in place, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Feb. 1, indoor dining at restaurants is scheduled to resume with a 25% capacity limit and a 10 p.m. curfew.

Wentworth said the Feb. 1 reopening plan is "not set in stone" and restaurant owners are concerned the date will change.

"That right there is reckless," Wentworth said of the looming uncertainty facing business owners.

The state needs clarity on what the expectations are and to trust people to follow them, Shirkey said.

House Republicans are also pushing for in-person instruction at Michigan schools. Many Michigan schools are offering in-person instruction this month, but some have remained fully virtual since March.

On Wednesday, House Republicans proposed tying some school funding to in-person instruction relaunching by Feb. 15.

"Our goal is to get kids in the classroom as fast as possible. I think incentivizing that will help schools speed that up," Wentworth said.

The governor has encouraged schools to offer in-person instruction by March 1.

Amid the disagreements, the Michigan Senate blocked 13 of Whitmer's appointees on Wednesday while Republicans pushed for more influence on the state's COVID-19 response. Shirkey didn't rule out more appointment rejections in the future.

"Until this governor stops acting unilaterally and invests in and encourages and invites in the Legislature to be part of most of these decisions, not all but many, then we're relegated to using the tools that are available to us through our constitution and our statutes," he said.