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Michigan’s governor emphasizes voluntary efforts to curb the most severe coronavirus outbreak in the US

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s actions fly in the face of mandatory restrictions she instituted last year.

A sidewalk sign in Michigan reads, “Face masks are required.”
Covid-19 cases are surging in Michigan, the latest epicenter of the virus in the US.
Getty Images

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is declining to order statewide lockdowns in response to her state experiencing the most severe Covid-19 outbreak in the country, opting instead to recommend that people take “personal responsibility” and “voluntarily” take a break from spaces where transmission is more likely.

The decision to refrain from mandatory restrictions is a striking development for a Democratic governor who last year garnered national attention for swiftly instituting and standing by social distancing laws even in the face of militant right-wing protests and a kidnapping attempt against her. This time around, though her state is experiencing a full-blown crisis, she’s taking a softer approach in what may be a political calculation about her reelection prospects next year.

Michigan has recently become the newest coronavirus epicenter of the US. Case rates have risen 375 percent since late February, and Michigan is home to 16 of the 20 metro areas with the nation’s highest recent number of cases. Sixteen Michigan hospitals are operating at over 90 percent capacity. Experts say that the surge is due to a combination of the enhanced contagiousness of the B.1.1.7 variant and relaxed restrictions.

But Whitmer has taken a decidedly incremental approach on reinstating distancing rules as her state is overwhelmed by new cases. At a press conference on Friday, she took a position that indicated a reluctance to reinstate full-blown lockdowns.

“We all have to step up our game for the next two weeks to bring down rising cases,” she said. “And that’s why I’m calling on high schools to voluntarily go remote for two weeks past spring break, I’m calling on youth sports to voluntarily suspend games and practices for two weeks, and I’m strongly encouraging all Michiganders to avoid dining indoors and avoid gathering with friends indoors for two weeks.”

“Policy alone won’t change the tide. We need everyone to step up and to take personal responsibility,” she said.

Whitmer emphasized that she wasn’t making restrictions mandatory, but didn’t rule out future restrictions.

Her current actions stand in contrast to her use of emergency executive orders and stay-at-home orders last spring to bring down the rate of cases in her state — a response that was popular but also elicited vociferous pushback from conservative activists and the state’s Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer might be worried about pushback

A growing number of public health officials and experts are calling on Whitmer to take more aggressive action, and it is possible that she will do so at some point in the future. But for now, there are a few factors that could be playing a role in her resistance to issuing mandated actions.

One is the issue of efficacy. A great deal of polling data shows that fatigue with Covid-19 restrictions is a very real phenomenon, and that even many months ago people were reporting a decline in compliance with rules. Whitmer might be concerned that with the spread of the vaccine, better weather, the relaxation of restrictions in other states, and growing optimism, it could be difficult to achieve compliance with mandatory restrictions. There could be a concern that making rules required will make people resentful while not significantly improving health outcomes.

Another factor is political calculation. She may fear backlash and disapproval at a time when people are sick of restrictions, a concern as she approaches reelection next year — in a state where Republicans control the legislature and have wasted no opportunities to paint her past Covid-19 restrictions as tyrannical.

Political observers believe Whitmer’s management of the pandemic will play a pivotal role in determining her reelection — and the reality is that perception of the virus is different now than it was a year ago.

But some public health experts say that trying to take what seems like a moderate position on social distancing during a crisis-level surge is a dangerous mistake.

“What it looks like happened is she tried to be fair and meet us in the middle,” Debra Furr-Holden, a Michigan State University epidemiologist whom Whitmer appointed to a coronavirus task force, told the New York Times. “And what I think we’ve learned — and I hope other states will get the message — is that there really isn’t a lot of middle ground here. We just have to tighten up and hold tight.”