Whitmer promotes Michigan reopening as COVID restrictions ease after 'grueling 15 months'

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer touted Michigan's reopening Tuesday, as the state's broadest remaining restrictions on masks and indoor gatherings officially eased 15 months into the pandemic.

Whitmer was join by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the state's Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun for the announcement on Belle Isle in Detroit.

"It's been a grueling 15 months," the governor said. "We've all been pushed to our breaking points."

The press conference came the day statewide policies on gatherings and masks lift. On Thursday, the Democratic governor announced maximum indoor capacity limits would increase to 100% and the state's mask mandate for non-vaccinated people would be removed as of Tuesday.

While marking the state's return to full capacity Tuesday, Whitmer laid out details of her administration's "jumpstart" program, which calls for allocating federal COVID-19 relief dollars to aid front-line workers returning to school, expand childcare options, temporarily boost the minimum wage and offer incentives for get more Michigan residents back to work. 

The Democratic governor's proposals for the federal COVID aid are still being negotiated with the Republican-led Legislature, which has been promoting some different priorities for COVID aid and state spending.

Whitmer reiterated her endorsement of federal "Hero Pay" legislation, a one-time bonus for all front-line workers of the coronavirus pandemic, noting "we've got to do more than just thank our essential workers."

The governor has proposed spending $100 million of federal pandemic funding on the Futures for Frontliners program. Since it was created last year, she said, more than 85,000 Michigan residents have been accepted into the program and over 15,000 are currently enrolled in classes. 

“It’s a program that’s the first of its kind in America and I’m hoping other states will copy us,” Whitmer said. "This is replicated from the chapter of World War II when we were able to pay for college and skills opportunities for those who serve our nation. That’s what this is about."

The infusion of money would fully fund two years of college for the 15,000 recipients and allow the state to expand the program to cover residents who are unemployed due to the pandemic. 

“We’ve got an unprecedented opportunity to use this $3.5 billion (budget) surplus, when 12 months ago we thought 'we’re going to have a $3 billion deficit,'” Whitmer said, referring to the amount of excess money available for the current and next fiscal years. “This is an opportunity where we can make transformational change.”

Whitmer said she's continuing to invite state lawmakers to come to the table to be a partner in hammering out the final details of the spending plan.

"This is about making sure Michigan comes out of this pandemic in the strongest possible shape," she said. "We have to work together to make that so."

The governor also noted the recently unveiled Michigan Jumpstart Plan will address broad economic issues as the state returns to normal, saying the state needs jobs that pay higher wages, a helping hand for small businesses and more child care opportunities.

Her plan uses $1.4 billion to boost wages to at least $15 an hour by giving businesses grants to cover the difference between the wages they pay and $15 for the next three months. The state would also make 150,000 more kids eligible for no-or-low cost child care under the plan. 

Grants up to $20,000 will be set aside for small businesses for rent, taxes, payroll, or operating expenses along with a back-to-work incentive which provides laid-off employees $300 per week, in addition to their salaries to return to work through Sept. 4.

“This is an incentive to draw down these federal dollars and use it for people to get back into the workforce," Whitmer said. "We should expand this, so its not just people returning to the job they had pre-pandemic, but getting into any job."

She added: "We need the Legislature to help us on that." 

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announces the end of COVID restrictions during a press conference on Belle Isle, in Detroit, June 22, 2021.

 The Small Business Association of Michigan has argued that ending discentives to seek work, such as an extra payment for the unemployed, would do more to help businesses.

Khaldun commended Michiganians Tuesday for their vigilance with social distancing, mask wearing and for seeking out vaccinations to stem spread of the virus.

The state's COVID-19 positivity is under 2%, and Khaldun noted 9 million doses of the "safe and effective vaccines" have gone into arms across the state and "that is cause for celebration."

But the state's chief medical executive warned that highly contagious coronavirus variants are still circulating and those who haven't gotten the vaccine should continue to exercise caution.

"The pandemic has not ended," Khaldun said. "We have not yet achieved herd immunity."

In addition, Michigan workplace regulators filed new COVID-19 emergency rules Tuesday that largely align state rules with federal workplace guidance and let most employers "use their best judgment" on pandemic protocols. 

The latest regulations allow employers — with the exception of health care facilities — to decide whether to keep in place mask mandates, social distancing and daily health screenings, according to a statement from the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. The department added that it "strongly encourages" workplaces to follow federal workplace standards. 

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, right, gets a hug from district court judge Jacquelyn McClinton before a press conference on Belle Isle, in Detroit, June 22, 2021, announcing the end of COVID restrictions in the state.

The new Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules largely focus on protocols for health care settings exposed to a known or suspected COVID-19 patient. 

Whitmer in April announced the "MI Vacc to Normal" plan tying future COVID-19 restrictions to the percentage of residents who have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. She opens the state despite not reaching her initial goal of vaccinating at least 70%, or 5.7 million residents.

"At this point in time, our COVID numbers of plummeted," Whitmer said. "Our vaccination rates continue to climb, albeit a little slower than I'd like to see, but they are moving in the right direction."

The state lifts most of its remaining COVID-19 restrictions after rolling back many others in recent weeks, including indoor and outdoor capacity limitations.

As of Monday, 61.2% of Michigan residents over age 16 had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

As children ages 12-15 in the state became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine last month, the increase in the population decreased the percentage of the population vaccinated to about 55.8%.

The state's COVID-19 cases have been decreasing for the last nine weeks and last week added 1,033 cases and 72 deaths from the virus, a decrease from the week prior when the state added 1,786 cases and 175 deaths.

The state's fully vaccinated population includes 73% of all seniors 65 years and older, 60% of people aged 50 to 64; 48% of people age 40 to 49; 43% of people age 30 to 39; 33% of people age 20 to 29; and 32% of people age 16 to 19.

In Detroit, vaccination rates lag. About 37% of residents so far have received one dose, according to the city's COVID-19 dashboard. That's compared to 62% in outer-Wayne County, 54% in Macomb County and 65% in Oakland and Washtenaw counties.

Duggan reflected on the impacts of the pandemic on his hard-hit city. Detroit has seen more than 51,400 confirmed cases of the virus and 2,269 deaths. 

“There was a projection that the tragedy could have been far greater, but throughout this process, we have had great leadership and it hasn’t been easy,” said Duggan, while warning of emerging COVID-19 variants. “Make no mistake though, this Delta variant, we’re going to see this comeback up again. So, please keep talking to your friends and relatives about getting vaccinated."

Gilchrist added Tuesday's actions represent a "turning of the page" on the pandemic, but on the state's terms.

"At the start of the pandemic, the city of Detroit was one of the epicenters for the depths of despair for cases and deaths," said Gilchrist, noting he lost 27 people in his life to the COVID-19. "The virus hit our city hard, but we showed that we're harder."


Twitter: @SarahRahal_