In order to pressure Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to end her pandemic protections, Michigan Republicans have stalled coronavirus aid.
LANSING, Mich.—Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday that she will not cede her authority to issue certain COVID-19 restrictions, calling Republicans’ attempt to hold back federal pandemic relief funding unless she changes course “cruel and reckless.”
The Democratic governor urged GOP lawmakers to “shift their perspective to looking forward” and stop “digging in” on their continued opposition to state health department orders that, while loosened, still limit capacity at restaurants to 25% and prohibit youth contact sports to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, before Whitmer gave a State of the State speech in which she sought “common ground” on $5.6 billion of COVID-19 spending that would help with vaccine distribution and assist schools and businesses, Senate Republicans blocked 13 of her appointees to make a point about not having input into management of the crisis. And House Republicans linked approval of $2.3 billion in federal and state K-12 funding to empowering counties—not the state—to decide about restricting sports and in-person instruction.
“These were federal dollars that were sent to our state. They were supported by our bipartisan congressional delegation,” the governor told reporters. “To hold those things hostage to try to change the balance of power in Lansing is just cruel and reckless.”
House Speaker Jason Wentworth called his GOP caucus’ plan “a start” and he denied that the caucus was trying to strip power from Whitmer or the health department. It is “reckless” and “cruel,” he said, for restaurants to be given no precise metrics that must be reached before the further easing of restrictions.
“What we are trying to do is to get kids into the classroom, get kids into seats,” he said at a news conference where he and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey formally responded to the governor’s speech. The House proposal would give additional state aid to schools that commit to offering an in-person instruction option by Feb. 15. Whitmer has recommended that schools do so by March 1.
Districts decide whether or not to have face-to-face learning, though the state prohibited it at high schools statewide from mid-November through mid-December amid a surge in cases. Republicans say such decisions should only be made locally.
The governor said the executive branch must have the authority to be nimble and act quickly during a pandemic. The current one has claimed at least 14,000 Michigan lives.
“My primary responsibility as governor is to keep the people of this state safe,” she said.
Republicans are frustrated that Whitmer, whose unilateral emergency powers were upended by the state Supreme Court, has in turn used the state health department to issue restrictions.
The Whitmer administration monitors the case rate, positivity rate and hospital capacity but has been reticent to tie the relaxing of limits to specific numbers. Citing an example, the governor said the percentage of tests turning up positive with the original virus means something “very different” than if the same positivity rate was found in a worrisome new Brazilian variant now in the US.
“The fidelity to a specific number and percentage is problematic,” she said.
Shirkey, though, accused the governor of “not just moving the goalposts but changing the rules” to impose “arbitrary” limits on youth sports and restaurants, which can resume indoor dining next week after a 2 1/2-month ban but at less capacity than before and with a mandatory 10 p.m. curfew.
“That’s why we have to insist on … clarity on what the expectations are,” Shirkey said.