Opinion: Data says we can open Michigan safely

Bob Roth

Michigan’s businesses and employees are itching to get back to work, safely and soon.

To expedite, several in West Michigan have compiled fresh data to make the case than areas are prepared to ramp up safely from severe pullbacks imposed to contain the COVID pandemic.

It’s not in our culture to distinguish between “essential” and “non-essential” employees rather all are worried about their jobs, livelihoods and their companies. 

Now is the time for leadership to help instill confidence in our state’s ability to innovate and confirm safe work environments. This must include employer health check monitoring to forecast and protect employees, transparent and up-to-date relevant local data on community and hospital forecasts, and plans to ensure work environments maintain clear, managed precautions so that Michigan employees can return to making things and serving customers.

To that end, the West Michigan Policy Forum, with the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce created a comprehensive COVID-19 dashboard that details hospital capacity and  how the pandemic data compares with the state and neighboring Indiana and Ohio.

The WMPF dashboard helps all clearly understand the number of hospital beds available and those occupied with COVID-19 cases. It also shares the number of ventilators in use to clearly assess regional capacity for future needs. West Michigan has experienced fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita than other state regions or Indiana. 

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speak during a press conference on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Lansing. The two state officials were updating the public on the Michigan's response to COVID-19.

Industries ranging from automotive to golf and real estate to landscape, have already sought and received approval from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to re-open. Next, Michigan’s Restaurant & Lodging Association is asking permission to re-open May 29.

West Michigan can provide multiple examples of companies with established daily health screen programs and extensive overhauled sites to keep employees safe. Michigan-based Meijer has shared its model screening process whereby all employees use an on-line survey tool; temperatures are checked on each shift — along with requiring masks, gloves and protective screens.

My own company, RoMan Manufacturing, manages daily health screenings, feeding information to a county site for hot spot monitoring. We re-worked our entire plant to manage social distancing, provide masks and hand sanitizer. And, we added ongoing cleaning. It’s like painting the Mackinac Bridge — start at one end and when you get to the other, start over again.

The WMPF and Chamber want to ensure that as businesses get back to work safely, they have a fair chance at competing with rivals from neighbor states. As seen in the past, competitors from Ohio and Indiana may try to poach employees, contracts or customers away from Michigan companies as Ohio and Indiana have been quicker to reopen safely. We must respond in a safe, timely fashion to reopen or we risk permanently losing jobs for Michigan.

With Detroit getting major attention as a “hotspot” for COVID-19, it’s natural to be concerned about Grand Rapids surging in the future. 

Now, more than ever, concise data is important. The latest on cases and deaths show West Michigan at or below state averages and Indiana and Ohio. West Michigan’s increase in providing virus testing — up 54% during the first week of May — may correlate to the increase in positive virus readings, but the ratio of positive-to-negative results is declining. 

Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, reported Tuesday that daily COVID-19 cases dropped 25% over the previous seven days. That’s promising in downward trend of cases and deaths. 

Now let’s prove what this dashboard is telling us: We can get back to work safely and quickly if we steadfastly continue to provide health screening; to stay home if sick; to practice on-site social distancing; to wear PPE; and to maintain appropriate cleaning and hygiene. We can protect lives and livelihoods if we all work together to open Michigan safely.

Bob Roth is president and CEO of RoMan Manufacturing Inc., a member of the West Michigan Policy Forum and president of the American Welding Society.