As Michigan enters year 2 of COVID-19, scars in the Capitol remain

By: - March 10, 2021 9:06 am

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

A year after Michigan officials recorded the first two positive COVID-19 tests on March 10, 2020, two state lawmakers who had the virus — one Democrat, one Republican — have recovered. But their views over how to handle the pandemic that has killed almost 16,000 Michiganders underscore the Capitol’s deep partisan divide.

Last March, state Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) was the first lawmaker to announce he contracted the virus. He said that he feels fine one year later but has been placed in blood pressure medication for the first time in his life. He believes the virus has something to do with it.

“But if that’s all I got,” Carter said, “shit, that’s OK!” 

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State Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) contracted the virus in September. He feels fine physically, but as one of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s biggest critics — long before the COVID crisis hit — he’s not surprisingly unhappy with the administration’s pandemic restrictions that have at different times, banned indoor dining, in-person learning in schools and large-group gatherings.

“Physically, I have no lasting or lingering effects of COVID except that my economy is shut down and I keep getting phone calls in my office, everyday, dozens of people who can’t get unemployment,” LaFave said. “I would give the governor a failing grade and force her to repeat the class.”  

Most state pandemic orders have been lifted and studies have credited Whitmer’s tough restrictions with preventing cases and saving lives. Carter praised her administration’s COVID response.

“I think the state responded well,” Carter said. “I would give [Whitmer] an A. It was like a fire. She grabbed a blanket and threw it on the whole state.”

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Since the first two people were diagnosed with COVID in Michigan a year ago, 598,966 more Michiganders have tested positive as of Tuesday. Michigan has had 15,699 people die from the virus. While coronavirus first primarily hit the metro Detroit area, it spread to all 83 counties by the summer.

Whitmer has ordered flags lowered Wednesday in state buildings to commemorate the one-year anniversary of COVID in Michigan and has asked for residents to turn on their outside lights to remember those who have died from 8 to 9 p.m. Wednesday.

“One year ago, our world changed forever as we confronted the greatest challenge of our generation,” Whitmer said. “By lowering the flags to honor the one-year anniversary of the virus’s confirmed presence in Michigan, we remember the nearly 16,000 sons and daughters, moms and dads, and neighbors and friends who passed away from COVID-19 in Michigan. As we honor their legacies, let us also take a moment to grieve together, and know that we are not alone in our mourning,” Whitmer said.

Carter and LaFave aren’t the only lawmakers to contract COVID — although the exact number may not be known, as individual lawmakers, not legislative leadership, have announced if they have the virus, raising transparency and public health concerns.

State Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) died on March 29 and the virus is believed to have played a factor. He is the only state lawmaker who has died and is believed to have been the first one in the nation.

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Other legislators who have disclosed they had COVID are: Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit), state Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte), Rep. Scott VanSingel (R-Grant), Rep. Ann Bollin (R-Brighton) and Rep. John Chirkun (D-Roseville), Rep. Kyra Bolden (D-Southfield), Sen. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Twp.), Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint). 

Additionally, state Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) said she believed she had COVID-19, although her test was lost. And Rep. Matt Huizenga (R-Walker) said he tested positive for COVID antibodies, indicating he had the virus at some point.

The virus has amped up tensions in the Capitol, as GOP leaders have declined to issue a mask mandate (it’s exempt from the state mandate, due to the separation of powers). Over the course of the past year, many legislators have consistently worn face masks in the Capitol and other state buildings. Others, mostly Republicans, have not, with some questioning the scientific consensus on masks being effective in stopping the spread of COVID.

The House and Senate have both had to cancel sessions due to COVID outbreaks at the Capitol last year. After one such incident shut down the House in November, then-House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) blamed Republicans for not having stronger safety protocols in place and said the Legislature should have a plan in place to meet remotely.

“Widespread media speculation that the cancelations were prompted by COVID exposure reminds us all once again that House Republican leadership has failed to take the steps necessary to allow the House to continue functioning safely during this pandemic,” said Greig. “Imagine how different things would have looked for the Legislature and the people of Michigan if the House had approved, rather than ignored, Democrats’ plan for remote participation at the start of this public health crisis.”

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Some Democratic lawmakers wanted to declare March 1 COVID-19 Victims and Survivors Memorial Day, but the GOP leadership declined to take up the resolution in time.

COVID has left its mark on the Capitol in other ways. 

Last year, the Capitol was rocked by several demonstrations carried out by right-wing protesters and armed militia organizations that have pushed back on Whitmer’s COVID-19-related safety directives, some of which were attended by GOP lawmakers. The demonstrations also featured Confederate flags and Nazi symbols. Many lawmakers, particularly African Americans, have called out racism and pushed for increased safety measures. In January, the Michigan State Capitol Commission finally banned the open-carry of firearms in the building.  

The Republican-led Legislature has opposed Whitmer’s restrictions since April 2020 and successfully sued Whitmer to overturn the 1945 law she used for many of her orders. After the GOP-majority Michigan Supreme Court ruled in its favor in October, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) issued many of the same orders. 

The fight rages on, with Whitmer on Tuesday vetoing yet another measure that would have curbed her administration’s authority that was wrapped into COVID relief funding.


Pandemic impact on other legislatures, Capitol Hill

The nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures tracks the impact of the coronavirus on state legislatures.

Legislatures are handling the virus in very different ways. Some states, like Delaware, have had their bodies meet virtually, something Republican leaders in Michigan have declined to do. Several states have dealt with COVID outbreaks, like Minnesota and Wisconsin last year, and Indiana canceling sessions in January and temporarily closing the statehouse. In January, Florida began requiring a negative test onsite to enter the capitol after an outbreak last fall.

In Congress, 126 lawmakers have either been isolated because of having COVID-19, self-quarantined after exposure, or took other action or no action after exposure — some multiple times, according to Of those, 71 have been diagnosed with COVID-19 either through testing or symptoms.

In December, just a week before he was to take office, U.S. Rep.-elect Luke Letlow, a Louisiana Republican, died of COVID-19. In February, U.S. Rep. Ron Wright (R-Texas) died from coronavirus. 

In Michigan, two there have been two members of Congress who said they had COVID: U.S. Reps. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) and Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland).


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.