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Editorial: Extension of emergency not justified by data

The Detroit News

After three long months of battling the COVID-19 virus, Michigan has the pandemic here under control. 

The state is leading the nation this week in the fewest number of new cases, and on many recent days the death count from the virus has been in the single digits. A national COVID-19 modeling site reports Michigan, New York and New Jersey are the three states on track to containing the virus.

More:COVID-19 modeling site: Michigan one of three states 'on track to contain' virus

COVID Act Now says infection rates in the state are low, Michigan has widespread testing in place and has sufficient contact tracing to manage the outbreak.

Last week, Michigan reported only 115 new confirmed COVID-19 deaths statewide, an 88% drop from a peak of 966 confirmed deaths during the week of April 19-25.

The news is worth celebrating. And it should have led to an end to the state of emergency in Michigan.

Instead, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she is unilaterally extending the order once again, this time through July 16. The previous unilateral extension of her emergency declaration expires today.

Whitmer's unilateral extension of the emergency order is unnecessary.

Given the glowing reports on Michigan's success in managing the crisis, the governor should have taken a victory lap and declared the emergency over.

With Michigan now in the green zone for COVID-19 risk, there is no justification for continuing the emergency, which has allowed the governor to take over nearly every aspect of life in the state, including the personal activity of its residents and private sector commerce.

Such power should be reserved for situations which require swift and severe actions to manage. That was the case in March when Whitmer first declared the emergency.

It's not the case now. The justification for the initial declaration was that the surging number of virus cases risked overwhelming the health care system. Hospitals now have plenty of capacity to handle the current COVID-19 case load. The system was strained at times, notably in Detroit, but not overloaded statewide even during the worst of the outbreak. That should ease concern about a future surge. 

Also in the early weeks, the declaration allowed the governor to put safeguards in place to stop the virus's spread. She credited Michigan residents for embracing social distancing, masks, hand washing and other precautions.

As the governor noted in her Wednesday press conference, "the people of Michigan have taken this seriously," And they are perfectly capable of protecting themselves now without the heavy hand of the governor on their shoulder.

Both of Michigan's emergency powers laws specify that the powers granted to the governor are temporary, and should go away when the crisis is under control. 

The governor, whose extension of the emergency powers without legislative approval is being challenged in court, has not set a clear benchmark for lifting the declaration.

If she intends to keep it in place until Michigan reaches zero Covid-19 cases, or a vaccine is developed, that could be several more months or longer. The law was not intended to allow the governor to become a dictator.

The threat from the virus has reached the point where it can be managed through regular order governing. If there is a severe spike in cases, the governor can ask Legislature for a new declaration. 

Whitmer may find it quite convenient to keep the Legislature on the sidelines indefinitely, but that's not how democracy works.