Michigan Gov. Whitmer faces fierce backlash over strict stay-at-home order

"We're responsible adults and can be trusted to go out in public," said one critic.
Image: Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing on Monday, April 13, 2020.Michigan Office of the Governor / Pool via AP

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By Allan Smith and Erin Einhorn

DETROIT — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed one of the most restrictive stay-at-home orders in the country late last week in hopes of containing the coronavirus outbreak in her state — one of the hardest hit.

The backlash has been immense.

Michiganders, many from the more conservative areas of the state, believe Whitmer's latest order went too far. They accused her of stripping them of their constitutional rights. Online, they pledged to protest, signed petitions calling for her recall and joined Facebook groups dedicated to having the order curtailed.

Whitmer's executive action extended her prior stay-at-home order through the end of April and toughened it up.

For at least until then, Michiganders won't be allowed to travel to in-state vacation residences. They are not permitted to use a motor boat. Business restrictions have been tightened, including that large stores must close areas "dedicated to carpeting, flooring, furniture, garden centers, plant nurseries, or paint," among other measures. Violators could be fined or charged with a misdemeanor, though the practicality of strict enforcement was unclear.

Whitmer spent much of her Monday news conference responding to the push back on the new measures. Prominent conservatives circulated a petition to have her recalled — one that generated more than 200,000 signatures — while more than 300,000 Facebook users joined a group titled "Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine" in recent days.

"The reason we started this group wasn't that we were against the quarantine. We're not," the group's founder, Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor and former Western Michigan University football player, said in a Facebook Live on Monday. "We were against our very constitutional rights taken away from us."

Whitmer said her actions are centered on flattening Michigan's curve of infections. The new restrictions are aimed at curbing foot traffic in stores and preventing the outbreak — now focused around Detroit — from spreading quickly through the northern and more rural parts of the state, where the health system is not well equipped for a major outbreak.

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The governor said she understood how difficult the measures could make things for business owners and those who are struggling with shutting down much of their livelihood.

"There's nobody who'd rather be able to push a button and just return to life as normal," Whitmer, a Democrat, said. "But no button exists in this environment."

Multiple protests against the governor are scheduled, including one where critics plan to descend on the state Capitol in Lansing and cause a ruckus — from their cars.

That event, hosted by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund — a DeVos family-linked conservative group — is set for Wednesday. More than 3,000 Facebook users have pledged to attend. Organizers want people to create a traffic jam, honk horns and flash signs.

"People always say: 'Conservatives never protest because they are too busy working,'" the event page says. "Well, guess what. You're not working — so it's time to PROTEST."

Matthew Seely, a spokesman for the Michigan Conservative Coalition, said the event is intended to be "nonpartisan."

"We are asking people to become united on this one issue — all Michiganders to say we've gone too far," he said. "We're responsible adults and can be trusted to go out in public."

Whitmer said it's "OK to be frustrated" and "angry."

"I've got thick skin," she said. "And I'm always going to defend your right to free speech. So, I just ask that those who are protesting these orders do so in a safe manner so you don't get sick and you don't subject our first responders to risk, either."

The governor later criticized one of the protest hosts over its link to the DeVos family, the most powerful in the state's conservative politics.

"This group is funded in large part by the DeVos family," she said, calling on them to disavow the event. "I think it's really inappropriate for a sitting member of the United States president's Cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor."

Nick Wasmiller, a DeVos family spokesperson, said the family "hasn't spent a dime on this protest, nor has it offered prior support to the organizing entity" but "understands the frustration of fellow Michiganders as elements of the governor's top-down approach appear to go beyond public safety."

With a national debate raging over how quickly portions of the economy can be reopened in the coming weeks or months ahead, Michigan is emerging as a possible battleground.

The conflict highlights a rift between the more conservative parts of the state that helped lift President Donald Trump to victory in 2016, and cities like Detroit, a heavily Democratic and minority community that boosted Whitmer into office and is now experiencing one of the largest outbreaks of any place outside of New York state.

"I just can't hear about one more black health care worker, police officer or bus driver die while getting a barrage of complaints from white folks outraged because they can't go golfing," state Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, tweeted.

Whitmer herself has risen in national stature as the pandemic developed, an up-and-coming Democratic leader of a swing state who suddenly has to lead Michigan through a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. Joe Biden has mentioned her as a possible running mate in the fall; Trump has clashed with her.

"I think it's noticeable when you see when the governor started being talked about as a potential vice presidential nominee ... the demeanor and the tone changed dramatically," state Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Democrat, told NBC News of the response to the order. "So there's no question that politics had something to do with it."

Though she drew Trump's ire late last month, their feud has cooled. Asked by conservative One America News on Monday about whether he would order his administration to intervene if other states followed Whitmer's lead, Trump said, "I don't think that's going to happen."

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"It is strong, it's a very strong position to take," the president said of Whitmer. "But they're making a lot of progress in Michigan, so let's see how it all works out."

Michigan Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield decried Whitmer's order, lamenting that while lawn care and boating have been deemed "nonessential," marijuana dispensaries remain open and the state-run lottery is ongoing.

Chatfield, who took heat from Michigan Republicans over remarks he made praising Whitmer, said he felt the governor fumbled the latest order, which he believes unnecessarily forces people to abandon remaining hobbies and harms businesses. He wants the governor to adopt a regional plan while adhering to guidance set by the Department of Homeland Security, and he remains optimistic she will soon adjust the order.

"We need to do all we can in Michigan to ensure that we have southeast Michigan's back," Chatfield said. "But part of allowing us to have southeast Michigan's back ... is by having a vibrant economy where there's a low risk for individuals and where social distancing can be followed."

On Monday, Whitmer said such actions weigh "heavily" on her and pointed to those who've lost friends and family members to the virus.

"While some of us are grieving the loss of our freedom," she said, "they're grieving the loss of their loved ones."

Allan Smith reported from New York and Erin Einhorn from Detroit.