The coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions that Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, enacted in March last year were among the nation’s toughest, and the governor’s leadership is thought to have saved lives. It also drew high marks from many in the state.
The same approach proved effective last fall when the second wave hit. Now, as Michigan faces another surge of cases and hospitalizations, its worst yet, Whitmer has changed tack.
Despite past success and growing calls for another lockdown from public health experts, and doctors managing hospitals with Covid patients, the governor is resisting further restrictions, and is instead largely relying on a vaccination rollout and a voluntary suspension of in-person dining services.
Several factors are driving the new approach, experts say. Among them is a growing sense of pandemic fatigue, and sustained pressure from conservatives. Eroding support from independents and Whitmer’s looming 2022 re-election race have also played a role. Many of those bearing the economic brunt of her lockdowns are donors and influential business leaders, said Bill Ballenger, a Michigan political analyst, and the governor appears to have been “scared straight”.
“I really do think the constant pressure over the last year is catching up, not just from the right and conservatives, but there are a growing number of people in the population, including independents and business persons who are Democrats, who are really angry at Whitmer,” Ballenger said.
The pressure to remain open continues even as cases and hospitalizations rise, putting Whitmer in an exceedingly difficult position. The surge hit soon after she lifted restrictions in early March, and Michigan’s two-week per-capita caseload now leads the nation. The state reached a bleak mark on Tuesday when over 4,000 people were reported hospitalized – the highest daily total of the pandemic. A high number of cases from Covid variants is also fueling the surge.
Among supporters strongly urging the governor to once again put restrictions in place are Dr Abdul El-Sayed, the former director of the Detroit health department. He noted that an increase in deaths has followed spikes in caseloads and hospitalizations, and said a new lockdown “would have a profound impact over the next couple weeks”.
He said: “Governor Whitmer showed a tremendous level of leadership last spring and fall, and that came with a lot of political blowback from conservatives, but she did the right thing – evidence shows that she saved lives, and we need that leadership now.”
Whitmer has largely pinned her hopes on the vaccine, but only 23% of the state is vaccinated, and it has been especially slow-moving in areas such as Detroit, where a high number of people with underlying conditions live. Whitmer has called on the federal government to send more vaccines.
But that absence of a lockdown order has divided her supporters and administration. Last month, her former state health director, Robert Gordon, abruptly resigned over what many suspect was a disagreement with Whitmer over reopening the state as the new variant first spread.
They also say it’s clear that the state’s vaccination plan is losing the race against the spread, and boosting the effort would not quell the surge quickly enough. It could take up to 57 days for the state to reach herd immunity, El-Sayed said.
“It’s not a sensible approach and it’s not an evidence-based strategy, if you run the numbers,” he said. “It’s a convenient approach to call for something, but it doesn’t erase the need for a lockdown now.”
That view was echoed by the chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky. The Biden administration has so far declined to send Michigan additional vaccines as it sticks with its proportional distribution plan – another difficulty for Whitmer – but vaccinations alone may not be the answer to Michigan’s problems, said Walensky.
“When you have an acute situation, an extraordinary number of cases like we have in Michigan, the answer is not necessarily to give vaccines,” Walensky said. “The answer to that is to really close things down, to go back to our basics, to go back to where we were last spring, last summer and to shut things down, to flatten the curve, to decrease contact with one another, to test … to contact trace.”
Still, the urgency and pressure from Whitmer’s allies has not persuaded the governor, who at a recent press conference said fresh lockdowns would be less effective because people are tired of the pandemic and the rules.
“It’s less of a policy problem that we have and more of a compliance and variant issue that we are confronting,” she said. “State policy alone won’t change the tide.”
That frustration partly explains why Whitmer’s latest polling numbers have slipped, Ballenger said, though in mid-March a majority still approved of her pandemic handling. He also partly attributed the erosion of support to the governor no longer having Donald Trump as “a foil”. Trump was highly unpopular with Michigan Democrats and independents, and Ballenger said he believes that Trump’s misogynistic attacks on Whitmer shored up her support.
“She was able to sustain a lot of the popularity simply because she was not Donald Trump and Trump wasn’t popular in Michigan,” Ballenger said. “She said, ‘I’m the anti-Trump and Trump is doing a lousy job of handling pandemic’, and that worked.”
Meanwhile, recent polls show her in a dead heat with the former secretary of state Candace Miller, a potential challenger in 2022. The governor’s fear of angering business donors “is part of it”, Ballenger said, though he added “the tremendous anger out there” with the economic situation was probably driving her decisions.
Abdul-Sayed conceded that “there’s no doubt that people are fatigued and tired” but said a majority of the state has supported lockdowns as the situations became more dire in the past.
“People see cases rise every day and the alarm is growing, so the justification for the restrictions gets clearer every day,” he said.