10 Minutes With: Governor Talks COVID-19 Response

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer worked at American Fifth Spirits, a Lansing distillery that transitioned into making hand sanitizer for essential workers and everyday Michiganders during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy State of Michigan)

The first two COVID-19 cases were discovered in Michigan March 10 and, shortly after that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a Stay Home, Stay Safe order that put Michigan residents on a lockdown, shuttered all but essential businesses and threw Michigan’s economy into a tumbler.

Since then, she’s issued dozens of executive orders, endured criticism and lawsuits from the Republican-led Legislature, been critiqued for not including lawmakers in the decisions she’s made and watched as the COVID-19 curve has flattened, then started to rise again.

Shortly after announcing her roadmap for the return of in-person learning in Michigan schools and less than two months before those schools are scheduled to reopen, Governor Whitmer sat down with Corp! Magazine to talk about it all (NOTE: An expanded story will be published in Corp! Magazine’s July/August magazine).

CORP!: A recent UNACAST grading curve gave Michigan an “A” for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Why do you think Michigan earned such a high grade?

WHITMER: We were the only state in the nation to get that grade. It’s probably a reflection of the fact we listened to all the epidemiologists and the incredible public health expertise we have here. We were confronted with a dramatic situation with COVID-19 early on, the front end of our nation’s experience with COVID-19 long before there was ample PPE or testing.

Following the advice of our public health expertise, I think we made a lot of the right decisions. We were very aggressive, we needed to be. We had the third-highest number of deaths in the country for a number of weeks, even though we’re the 10th largest state. That’s why we felt compelled to be so aggressive.

CORP!: California Gov. Gavin Newsom is rolling back some of the reopening of that state’s economy because their numbers are climbing. Are you anywhere near doing that in Michigan?

WHITMER: What’s going on in California is incredibly devastating, frankly, and we want to avoid that at all costs. We do see our COVID-19 numbers increasing, but it doesn’t look anything like California and Florida, for that matter. But it’s concerning. As we see these numbers continue to increase, every day we get closer to when we’re hoping to start our kids back to school, and so what we do today determines what position we’re going to be in in 56 days when school is supposed to restart.

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That’s why the mask mandate was an action we could take to try to tighten up and keep us in Phase 4. The vast majority of the state is in Phase 4, and I don’t want to move back … which is what they’re contemplating in certain parts of our country, a complete shutdown. I don’t want to go through that again.

CORP!: The mask mandate you issued last week puts the onus on businesses to enforce it. What do you say to those business owners who now have to enforce your executive order?

WHITMER: It stinks. None of us wants to be in this position. But we’ve had a cultural shift over the years where we became “no shirt, no shoes, no service,” and now it’s just going to be “no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.” This is about keeping employees safe, about keeping patrons safe.

It’s going to be hard. I don’t discount how difficult it is, especially when you’re talking about minimum-wage workers, many of whom are young people, who are asking people to mask up and telling them they can’t serve them if they don’t. I did have businesses encourage me to take this step … They wanted a hard line, so it wasn’t up to the (workers’) discretion, they wanted to say, ‘If you don’t have a mask on you can’t come in,’ and be able to blame the governor. I said, “I’ll take the blame. That’s fine.”

CORP!: A 77-year-old man was stabbed, and his assailant shot in Eaton County over the wearing of masks. Is there a part of you that thinks, ‘If I hadn’t made that order, this might not have happened.’?

WHITMER: It’s heart-breaking to hear that story. A 70-year-old man was trying to stick up for a clerk who was being harassed by a maskless person who was mad, took out his knife and stabbed the 70-year-old. We have to keep our wits about us. This is hard, I’m not trying to minimize it, but wearing a face covering is really a simple thing to do to keep from hurting people.

I’m glad Donald Trump wore a mask, and I’ve highlighted that Dick Cheney wore one and Mike Pence and Mitt Romney. We’ve got to get the politics out of this conversation. It’s just endangering more people. What happened (in Eaton County) is part of the politicization of public health. It hurts everyone when we do that.

CORP!: You recently released your roadmap for a return to in-person learning in Michigan schools in the fall. But school districts in Los Angeles and San Diego have now announced they’re coming back as on-line schools, at least to begin the fall. Are you still confident in your back-to-school roadmap?

WHITMER: The beauty of the way the council created this is that districts will have a plan for Phase 3, Phase 4 and Phase 5. Right now, 6-of- 8 regions are in Phase 4, and two are in Phase 5. If our COVID numbers continue to climb and we have to turn the dial and move backwards, they’ll use the plan they created for Phase 3, or Phase 4.

As I saw what happened in San Diego and in L.A., I think we should all be concerned. Keeping those numbers from growing the way that they’re growing in California is absolutely essential to having confidence that it’s going to be safe to send our kids, and our educational workforce, back to school.

CORP!: There were reports early on that you were on former Vice President Joe Biden’s short list as a running mate. Would you want that if he offered it and, if not, who would you like to see him pick?

WHITMER: I’m not going to answer either one of those questions, and I’m sure you aren’t surprised by that (laughing). I’ll say this: There have been a lot of twists and turns over the last four months. Having the White House focus on me, having the Biden campaign focus on me … all I’ve been trying to do is just to do my job.

Even to be mentioned … is truly an honor. I’ve got the job I worked for two years to get. I love being the governor of Michigan. Even on the hardest days, this is where I’d hoped to be and I’m awfully glad to be here, and I’ve got a lot more work to do.

Whomever his running mate is, I’m going to work my tail off to make sure they’re successful. After having a front-row seat to this administration for the last year-and-a-half, I know that lives are on the line here, so I’m going to work my tail off to help them.