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Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey on Tuesday is announcing a bipartisan workgroup aimed at safely transitioning Michigan citizens back to the workplace as the state continues to fight the spread of COVID-19. 

The group plans to have recommendations to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by April 17, and the members will work in conjunction with businesses and the medical community as they formulate a blueprint for best practices to aid in a transition back to work.

“Most workplaces, if we properly challenge ourselves, can be as safe as home,” says Shirkey, R-Clarklake. He says it’s possible “to walk and chew gum, safely.” 

Lawmakers met Tuesday for the first time since March 17 to extend Whitmer’s emergency declaration through the end of April. She had initially sought a 70-day extension, which Republican legislative leaders deemed too long a period. 

Shirkey stresses the guidelines for businesses wouldn’t trump how Whitmer’s stay-at-home order impacts non-essential travel and social interaction. 

“This is not taking a lid off on restrictions,” he says. “We are smarter than that.” 

The state’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” shelter-in-place order has effectively closed all non-essential businesses throughout Michigan, and Shirkey wants a plan to allow for some businesses to reopen. 

“Our willingness to embrace handwashing, social distancing, and the use of masks is the key to transitioning back to a more typical daily life,” Shirkey said in a statement. “We believe citizens who can maintain these behaviors within their homes can also maintain strict health and safety measures in the workplace.

“Today, the Senate Republicans will begin the process of developing a plan to transition to a Safe Behavior for Safe Workplaces mindset and operating principles.”

There is a wide spectrum of business and commercial activity, Shirkey says, from a sole proprietor of a lawn-care business to large concert venues, and the workgroup will need to account for that variety. Various regions of the state have also been impacted differently by the virus, and Shirkey says those disparities should be taken into account. 

The idea is to highlight the businesses that could reopen under safe guidelines, while not posing a significant risk to public health.

As Michiganians feel the sting of unemployment and businesses around the state are trying to survive temporary shutdowns, Shirkey says this is a smart strategy as the state slowly returns to normalcy.  

He is joined in leading the effort by Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth. And the full bi-partisan workgroup will include: Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City; Sen. Curt VanderWall, R-Ludington; Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit; Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit; and Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield.

“There are tremendous financial and psychological impacts to people from being out of work,” Shirkey said. “Without the option to maintain employment, many of our citizens will experience extreme mental stress and that in turn can manifest itself as physical ailments, a weakened immune system and tense domestic environments. The more prepared we are to bring workplaces back online, the quicker we can return financial stability, reduce stress levels and provide hope for our citizens.”

Leaders of the business community are likely to welcome the news. Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, recently tweeted that “it’s time to use common sense to clarify the stay-at-home order” to help Michigan residents “return to work by allowing employers who can operate safely to reopen.”

Other lawmakers in recent days have raised concerns about the impacts of the stay-at-home order on businesses and called for common-sense measures. Rep. Jason Wentworth, R-Clare, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, are among them. 

“We must also do the necessary work to be prepared to emerge from the peak of this pandemic into a transition period,” Shirkey says. 

ijacques@detroitnews.com 

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