Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer refuses to order statewide lockdowns in response to her country's worst Covid-19 outbreak. Instead, she recommends that people take "personal responsibility" and "voluntarily" take a break from the spaces where transmission is more likely.
The decision not to impose mandatory restrictions is a remarkable development for a Democratic governor who has drawn national attention over the past year for quickly adopting and complying with social distancing laws even in the face of militant far-right protests and an attempted kidnapping against her. This time, despite the fact that her state is in full blown crisis, she is softening a possibly political calculation of her prospects for re-election next year.
Michigan recently became the United States' newest coronavirus epicenter. Fall rates are up 375 percent since late February, and Michigan is home to 16 of the 20 subway areas with the highest number of falls in the country recently. Sixteen hospitals in Michigan are over 90 percent busy. Experts say that the increase is due to a combination of the increased risk of infection of variant B.1.1.7 and relaxed restrictions.
But Whitmer has taken a decidedly incremental approach to reintroducing distancing rules as their state is being overwhelmed by new cases. At a press conference on Friday, she took a position indicating that she was not ready to resume full bans.
"We all need to improve our game for the next two weeks to remove rising cases," she said. “And that's why I urge high schools to volunteer for two weeks after the spring break. I urge youth sports to voluntarily suspend games and exercises for two weeks, and I strongly encourage all Michigandans to avoid eating indoors and avoid meeting friends indoors for two weeks. "
"Politics alone will not change the tide. We need everyone to step up and take personal responsibility," she said.
Whitmer stressed that it did not impose any restrictions, but did not rule out future restrictions.
Her actions in this situation contrast with her use of executive emergency status instructions and stay-at-home instructions last spring to lower the case rate in her state – a response that was popular but also vociferously suppressed became conservative activists and the state's Republican-controlled legislature.
Whitmer may be concerned about a pushback
A growing number of public health officials and experts are urging Whitmer to take more aggressive action, and it is possible that they will at some point in the future. For now, however, there are a few factors that could play a role in their opposition to mandated action.
One is the problem of effectiveness. Much survey data shows that fatigue with Covid-19 restrictions is a very real phenomenon and that people reported a drop in compliance many months ago. Whitmer may be concerned that with the vaccine spread, better weather, easing of restrictions in other states, and growing optimism, achieving compliance with mandatory restrictions may be difficult. There may be concerns that requiring rules to make people angry while not significantly improving health outcomes.
Another factor is the political calculation. She could fear setbacks and disapproval at a time when people are fed up with restrictions, which worries her as she nears next year's re-election in a state where Republicans control the legislature and have never missed an opportunity to label their previous Covid-19 restrictions as tyrannical.
Political watchers believe Whitmer's management of the pandemic will play a crucial role in determining their re-election – and the reality is that perceptions of the virus are different today than they were a year ago.
However, some public health experts say that attempting to maintain a moderate position of social distancing during a crisis-level surge is a dangerous mistake.
"It looks like she was trying to be fair and meet us in the middle," Debra Furr-Holden, a Michigan State University epidemiologist who called Whitmer to a coronavirus task force, told the New York Times . "And I think what we have learned – and I hope other states will get the message – is that there really isn't much middle ground here. We just have to tighten and hold on.