Editorial: Shelter order may not be as sweeping as it seemed

The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's shelter-in-place order to halt the spread of the COVID-19 is aimed at giving more teeth to her earlier edicts to restrict public interactions. But the order may create a lot of confusion without being much more effective than what’s already in place.

While we support the governor’s efforts to encourage the public to stay apart as much as possible until the virus is under control, we worry the new, more restrictive order will create two classes of Michiganians: Those who can work and those who can’t.

More:Whitmer issues stay-at-home order through April 13; $500 fines, jail possible

As it reads now, the governor’s shelter-in-place order allows essential businesses to remain open. That’s a fairly obvious list: Medical facilities, grocery stores, trucking companies and others that keep the public safe and fed. The order prohibits “in-person work that is not necessary to sustain or protect life.”

That list may end up being smaller than first thought. 

The order allows those businesses deemed essential to designate the suppliers they rely on to keep operating, and they can remain open, too.

As it reads now, the governor's shelter in place order is as vague as it is broad, and we hope it will be clarified in coming days.

For example, a grocery warehouse will have to stay open to supply the stores. And so will the trucking firms that bring the food from the warehouse to stores.

The warehouse also will need the propane cylinders that power their forklifts. The vendors that fill the tanks get their propane from refineries. And the refineries need petroleum that moves through pipelines.

Trucking firms that deliver those groceries and medical supplies rely on tire companies to keep their rigs on the roads. The tires come from manufacturers that will also have to stay open, along with the repair shops and parts suppliers that help maintain the rigs. 

That’s a vast network and a lot of workers, and it gets even more expansive when it extends to those who make and pack the food and medial materials, and companies that manufacture the containers. And on and on. 

Each supplier can declare its suppliers essential as the chain moves on. That will create a list of winners and losers. Some people will be allowed to continue to maintain their jobs and incomes, while others will be ruined. Hardest hit, as always, will be those with the lowest incomes who are already struggling to survive. 

Not all non-essential businesses need to be covered by this order. A number of small businesses that don’t have face-to-face interaction with the public could easily maintain social distancing while keeping their operations going. Why close them?

Other businesses, such as fertilizing and lawn services, have one-person operators who work outdoors and have no reason to come in direct contact with their customers. Why shouldn’t they be exempt?

The governor’s office took the action after a rapid escalation of COVID-19 cases and deaths over the past few days, mostly in southeastern Michigan. 

We don’t question the necessity of vigilance. But it is the most intrusive measure ever put in place in Michigan — it seeks even to prohibit residents from inviting non-household members into their homes.

It could quickly turn large numbers of Michiganians into criminals. Violations carry up to a $500 fine, and possible jail time, giving this order the hint of martial law.

And in the end, a large number of people will still be leaving the house every day to keep society from collapsing.

Again, we hope it works. But we also hope, as the governor says, that it’s temporary.