Gov. Whitmer urges Mich. residents to stay home, defends not ordering lockdown similar to Ohio

Paul Egan Kathleen Gray
Detroit Free Press

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appeared Sunday on ABC and Fox News national public affairs TV programs, telling Michigan residents to stay home unless it is essential to go outside, but stopping short of issuing an emergency order to that effect.

"Stay at home if you're not absolutely needed to be outside of your home," Whitmer said on ABC's "This Week."

"If you do go outside, keep a six-foot distance from others."

But asked by host Martha Raddatz why she hadn't followed the lead of at least five other state governors by ordering a lockdown or "shelter in place" order, Whitmer said she and her officials are continuing to assess the situation and "what we need to do to keep people safe.

The main difference between urging people to stay at home and issuing a lockdown order using her emergency powers is that under an order, Michigan businesses deemed non-essential would have to stop telling their employees to report to work.

She said better data are needed to assess the situation and that requires more test kits and more testing.

"My team is meeting 24-7," she said. "We have been very aggressive."

On Fox News Sunday, Whitmer was asked by host John Roberts about her decision to exempt churches from penalties if they go against her order prohibiting gatherings of 50 or more people. She said church congregations are still encouraged not to gather, but mentioned the "separation of church and state" as one reason for granting an exemption from enforcement, as well as a request from Republican lawmakers.

Hundreds of people in Michigan have tested positive for coronavirus and at least eight have died, as of Saturday.

Whitmer also was scheduled to appear on "Meet the Press" on NBC, but apparently got bumped amid a frenetic news cycle.

On ABC and on Fox, Whitmer continued to press her case for more testing kits and personal protective equipment for Michigan health workers and criticized the federal government for a lack of coordination and a national strategy, resulting in a "patchwork" approach as state governors struggle to do their best, in large part on their own.

“Had the federal government really started focusing when it became clear that the whole world would be confronting this, we’d be in a stronger position right now,” she said on ABC.

“It’s an issue that I’m not going to belabor because I need to keep solving problems and I want the federal government to be a partner," said Whitmer, a national co-chair of former Vice President Joe Biden's Democratic presidential campaign.

"I can’t afford to be in a fight with the White House, but the fact of the matter is, at some point we’re going to have to analyze where all the failures were," she said.

"Lives will be lost because we weren’t prepared. Our economy will struggle longer because we didn’t take this as seriously early enough as a country.”

Whitmer's TV appearances took place during a debate on whether and when to further tighten state of emergency restrictions on commerce and the movement of Michigan residents.

Under such orders, already imposed in California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, and most recently, neighboring Ohio, residents are ordered to stay in their homes except for essential purposes, which can include shopping for food or medicine, getting health care, walking a dog, or getting exercise. Also, businesses deemed non-essential by the state are ordered to stop telling their employees to report to work. In other states, grocers, pharmacies, gas stations, and auto repair shops have been among those deemed essential. The New Jersey order exempts manufacturing operations, but requires staffing levels to be kept to a minimum.

More:Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closes hair and nail salons, barber shops in coronavirus fight

More:Michigan business groups advise against 'shelter in place' order for state

On Saturday, Whitmer ordered the closure of hair and nail salons, barber shops, tattoo parlors and other personal service shops and extended through April 13 an earlier order closing bars, restaurants, gyms, casinos, theaters and other public spaces and closing restaurants except for carry out and delivery service. Originally, those closures were set to run until the end of March.

Whitmer, who declared a state of emergency March 10, after the first positive test in Michigan for COVID-19, ordered state schools closed on March 12.

She has been assessing whether to announce a broader stay home order, sometimes referred to as a lockdown or a shelter in place order.

On Saturday, three large Michigan business lobbying organizations, including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, cautioned Whitmer against issuing such an order, saying it is difficult for the state to properly determine which businesses are in fact essential, many businesses deemed non-essential can safely operate under existing social distancing guidelines, and shutting down some businesses without adequate notice would cause long-term damage to both those companies and the economy more broadly.

The Committee to Protect Medicare, a national group with a Michigan physician as its executive director, called on Trump to order a national shelter in place order on Friday and criticized the Michigan business response in a Sunday news release. Late Friday, the organization called for the Trump administration to implement a national shelter in place.

“We are quickly running out of time and delaying a shelter in place order will only endanger people’s lives and the very businesses that the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and its leader, Mr. Rich Studley, rightfully want to protect,” said Executive Director Rob Davidson, an emergency physician in west Michigan.

“The growing consensus among doctors, frontline medical professionals and public health experts agrees that we have come to the point where COVID-19 will continue its rapid spread, overwhelm hospitals and put lives at risk, including those needing care not related to COVID-19, unless we enforce social distancing by keeping people in their homes.”

Whitmer also has halted evictions and foreclosures.

Whitmer's growing national profile and criticism of the federal government for a lack of direction and inaction in providing test kits, personal protection equipment and other needed supplies, and handling of the crisis has drawn the attention of President Donald Trump. On March 17, Trump described Whitmer on Twitter as "failing," and said she needs to be "much more proactive."

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter.