Republicans move ahead with Tues. session to check Whitmer’s COVID-19 orders

Safety precautions don’t meet CDC guidelines

By: - April 6, 2020 5:54 pm

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Michigan’s GOP-led Legislature appears ready to make its move to try and limit the Democratic governor’s power to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.  

Session will be held in both chambers Tuesday, despite widespread health concerns, even as it was announced Monday that another Michigan lawmaker, state Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit), tested positive for the virus.

And on Monday, Michigan for the first time recorded more than 100 deaths in a day. The state now has 17,221 cases and 727 deaths.

Lawmakers are set to vote on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s state of emergency and state of disaster declarations. Whitmer has requested that both declarations be extended by 70 days, which would carry them into June rather than the end of April.

“… Because what our epidemiologists and all of our health care experts are telling us, we know that coming in for a one day extension probably isn’t the wisest thing to do,” Whitmer said during Monday’s press conference at the state Capitol.

But Republican leaders in the House and Senate have made it clear that they do not believe this is necessary. State House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) have insisted on meeting in person for a Tuesday vote on a concurrent resolution to extend the declaration by 23 days.

That would mean the state Legislature would likely need to come back in three weeks to extend the state of emergency. That could coincide with the week before the height of Michigan’s COVID-19 outbreak, according to current state projections.

“Coming back in a few weeks will probably be when we’re close to the apex and the height of this crisis, and it would be contrary to all medical advice. So if they are coming in tomorrow, I would hope that they extend the state of emergency for longer so they don’t have to come back in the height of when the crisis is really hitting Michigan,” Whitmer said.

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2 lawmakers test positive

Whitmer is concerned about having legislators from all parts of the state convene at the Capitol, which is underscored by Whitsett’s test, and follows the positive diagnosis of state Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) and the death of state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) last Sunday of COVID-19-like symptoms.

Karen Whitsett

“Rep. Whitsett’s positive result in another reminder that everyone must follow the recommended guidelines and  in practice social distancing to stop the spread of this virus. Anyone who is experiencing symptoms should contact their medical provider,” said House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills). 

Some Democratic lawmakers have already announced they won’t attend session. And it’s not clear if there will be a quorum — a majority of members elected and serving — required for each chamber to vote.

State Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) said he will not be at Tuesday’s “sham” session. Elder, who is an attorney, added that the arguments from Republican leaders on the deadlines for Whitmer’s declarations are false.

“Eight days ago, my friend, Rep. Isaac Robinson, died due to Covid-19. Isaac sat in front of me on the House floor, less than six feet away,” Elder wrote.

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit) has also said that she will not be attending session Tuesday.

State Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) tweeted that being asked to return just to vote on a one-day extension is “the apex of ineffective and irresponsible governing,” but he will attend with an abundance of caution and self-quarantine when he goes home. State Reps. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.), Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Twp.), Kevin Hertel (D-St. Clair Shores) and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) also expressed concerns.

Republicans want quick end to stay home order

One of the sticking points with many GOP lawmakers and the powerful Michigan Chamber of Commerce has been Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order issued on March 24 that has shut down non-essential businesses, with exceptions for entities like grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants for takeout. 

Business groups lobbied Whitmer against the measure that she crafted with the input of top epidemiologists. 

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Now there’s a growing push from Republican lawmakers for her to end the order soon. President Trump has repeatedly talked about “reopening” the country at the end of the month, despite warning from health experts. 

Whitmer also has repeatedly criticized the slow federal response in getting Michigan personal protection equipment (PPE) for hospitals and forcing states to bid against each other. She’s also said that Michigan has had shipments seized by the feds, leaving hospital workers in a lurch.

Trump has personally attacked her several times, even last month bragging that he instructed Vice President Mike Pence not to take Whitmer’s calls. She’s since talked with both leaders and procured PPE from the federal stockpile. 

While many Michigan Republicans haven’t waded into the fight, they’ve become increasingly critical of her COVID-19 response, issuing waves of press releases demanding that golf courses reopen, landscapers be allowed to operate and the jammed unemployment filing system be fixed.

On Monday, Whitmer was asked whether she planned to extend her stay home measure set to expire on Sunday. She said she is “looking at an additional order … probably in the next week.” 

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What’s the timeframe?

Chatfield had previously appeared amenable to the extension Whitmer requested.

Now, both he and Shirkey are united in their belief that Whitmer doesn’t have the power to keep things shut down in the first place — although Steve Liedel, former chief counsel to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, has said otherwise.

According to Liedel, one of the two laws cited by Whitmer’s declarations of a state emergency and disaster (the Emergency Management Act of 1976) is clear that it should not be construed to “limit, modify, or abridge the authority of the governor to proclaim a state of emergency” pursuant to the other law (the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act).

Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said that since the executive order issued Wednesday both declared a state of disaster and expanded the already-issued state of emergency, both declarations extend through April 28 by law.

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In a letter to Chatfield on Saturday, Greig expressed her “grave concerns” about returning to legislative session on Tuesday “without adequate precautions in place.”

Greig wrote that if the Legislature plans to implement safety procedures that align with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, she is not aware of them.

She also said that if GOP leadership only extends Whitmer’s state of emergency and state of disaster declarations for 23 days, the short extension would be “grossly inadequate” in addressing the breadth of the situation at hand.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shiirkey | Laina G. Stebbins

In response to Greig’s letter, Chatfield argued that Whitmer’s request runs contrary to restrictions in state law. He also said that the House will have health screening procedures in place for legislators Tuesday.

“The governor’s declaration will expire on April 7th, and it is our responsibility to consider an extension. Doing so until May 1st will allow the governor to continue her important work while still giving local residents hope that they will have a real plan presented to them sooner than the end of June,” Chatfield wrote.

Chatfield spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro clarified in an email to the Advance Monday that the speaker believes that both Whitmer’s emergency order and disaster declaration will run out on Tuesday.

“The disaster declaration expanded the scope of the emergency, but is still subject to its 28-day limit,” D’Assandro said.

Legal experts have said that the courts could ultimately decide a dispute between the executive and legislative branches.

Safety measures

Shirkey has made it clear that he does not see much of a safety risk in coming back to session. He has also downplayed the dangers of lifting bans on congregating and allowing businesses to resume sooner than Whitmer would like to, and made the unsubstantiated claim that holding session in person on Tuesday will be “far safer than going to Walmart.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey | Laina G. Stebbins

“We have engineered a session plan to execute that will be far safer than anybody’s trip to a gas station or grocery store,” Shirkey told Crain’s Detroit last week.

Those precautions, according to an email from Shirkey spokesperson Amber McCann, will involve letting small groups of senators enter the chamber to record their attendance before being allowed to leave. Senators and members of the public will be met with a short questionnaire upon entering the Capitol and will need to have their temperatures taken.

Although Shirkey has assured that his plan of limiting the number of senators in the chamber is more than adequate, it stands in opposition to CDC guidelines and recommendations from health officials. Experts urge people not to go out in public unless it is absolutely necessary during the next two weeks, and to limit meetings that require close contact.

The CDC and health experts have also warned that the incubation period for COVID-19 can last up to 14 days, meaning that many with the virus can show no symptoms for that long while still carrying it.

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In the House, Chatfield has also announced health and temperature screenings for those attending Tuesday’s session. He also strongly encourages state representatives to stay home if they are older, have health conditions, are symptomatic or have been in contact with COVID-19 positive individuals.

On Monday afternoon, Greig announced on Twitter that she will be introducing a resolution during the session to create temporary House rules that would allow remote participation for sessions and committees. As of now, the Michigan Legislature has no procedure in place for online voting, although several other states have already begun meeting electronically.

The good government advocacy group Voters Not Politicians (VNP) also weighed in, arguing in a statement that more could be done to safeguard the health of lawmakers and the public.

“There are plenty of examples of how governments, businesses, and communities can conduct official business in a safe and productive way,” VNP Executive Director Nancy Wang said. “… Voters Not Politicians calls on our Legislature to continue the important functions of government in a way that is effective, transparent, and keeps all legislators and communities safe.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.