Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Provides a Lesson in What States Shouldn't Do To Stop a Pandemic

Some protestors were nasty and went overboard, but her harsh tactics will sap her legitimacy at a critical juncture.


If any politician is looking for a lesson on how not to deal with the coronavirus crisis, they would do well to look at Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). Even if you have zero sympathy with the people who violated basic social distancing rules yesterday to protest Whitmer's new stay-at-home-order, you should at least understand that her policy was bound to spark an ugly blowback.

The spread of coronavirus represents a massive failure of public health authorities, but Americans everywhere—including in Michigan, where I live—have thus far willingly complied with their edicts. It has been amazing to see just how completely American society has transformed itself in three short weeks: Businesses that have been deemed non-essential have shut down, laying off millions of workers. The ones that are still operating are letting their employees telecommute from home. Grocery stores have become thinly populated because shoppers are limiting their trips. Every store near me has erected spit barriers between cashiers and shoppers and some are disinfecting every single cart before use. The vast majority of shoppers wear masks (regardless of whether local laws mandate this or not), sanitize their hands a gazillion times before touching items, and refrain from unloading their carts when someone else is checking out. Drivers wipe down pumps and steering wheels. Park visitors maintain a scrupulous six-foot distance.

Most local lockdowns have their share of nuttiness (for example, in Florida and D.C., you can walk through parks but not sit down) and excesses (a Colorado* man was handcuffed for playing with his daughter in an empty softball field). But so long as the ratio of good sense to nonsense is relatively high, for the most part Americans have gone along. Irate residents and partisans seeking to exploit these measures for political gain have been marginalized.

But that changed in Michigan with Whitmer's new executive order that not only extended the state's shelter-in-place mandate till the end of the month—something most everyone had expected and accepted—but added arguably the country's most draconian and nonsensical provisions.

Even as neighboring Indiana and Ohio are relaxing their orders and the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency guidelines are classifying more industries as "essential" so that they can reopen and minimize the economic hit from the shutdown, Whitmore has gone the other way on the pretext that Michigan has the third-highest share of coronavirus cases in the country.

She ordered big box stores to stop selling paint, carpets, and other home-improvement material not considered essential, though as Reason's Billy Binion reported, she does allow lottery ticket sales, probably because the proceeds go to the state's K-12 funds.

She shut down lawn-care services. Contender's Tree and Lawn Specialist Inc., a company that purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars of fertilizer and other supplies had to stop spraying its plants in the middle of spring season, risking its entire crop. (Michigan's gardening industry, with an estimated retail value of $580 million to $700 million and 9,000 employees, faces a complete loss this year if it isn't able to operate soon.)

In addition to large gatherings, she also barred families that don't share a home from getting together, preventing one man from seeing his girlfriend of 14 years because she doesn't live with him.

She forbade families from traveling to their vacation cottages in northern Michigan, a popular springtime activity in Michigan. She shut down golf courses and prohibited motorized boats, although non-motorized ones are allowed, for some reason.

This is arbitrary and irrational micromanagement that has understandably irritated many residents.

What's more, Whitmer has decreed that violations will count as misdemeanors punishable by up to a $1,000 civil fine. Criminal penalties are also on the table, should prosecutors choose to pursue that. Meanwhile, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has gone full China and is encouraging employees to rat out their bosses and call the police if they try to open up shop in violation of the lockdown.

What's so outrageous about all this is that the new businesses and activities that Whitmer is targeting can all be safely conducted while adhering to strict social distancing rules. But Whitmer's theory apparently is that anything beyond absolutely essential conduct jeopardizes frontline workers. This is the precautionary principle on steroids. It considers even an infinitesimal increase in secondary risk as unacceptable, a mindset that could justify stopping virtually any activity anytime.

That's why this order has disrupted the political equilibrium in support of her efforts. To date, hardly any legal challenges have been filed against any stay-at-home orders. But Whitmer's new order has already prompted four Michigan residents, including the guy who can't see his girlfriend, and Contender's, the landscaping company, to sue her for violating their right to free association and perpetrating an uncompensated regulatory taking. More lawsuits might well be underway.

A Facebook group called Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantining—whose very name suggests that it isn't opposed to reasonable quarantining—gained steam with over 282,000 members. Four Michigan sheriffs have declared that they won't enforce parts of Whitmer's executive order that they view as unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, Operation Gridlock, which was mounted by the Michigan Conservative Coalition inviting motorists to drive to Lansing, the state's capital, and shut down its roads, elicited a massive response Wednesday. Thousands of Michigan residents heeded the call and created an hours-long traffic snarl.

Although the motorists adhered to the social distancing rules as they were advised, the protest also brought out a lot of nasty gun-toting thugs onto the streets. Michigan Proud Boys, a supremacist outfit, blocked the intersection around a hospital. Not only did they ignore safety guidelines, exposing themselves and others to the virus just when Michigan was beginning to flatten the curve, they also waved Confederate flags and chanted "lock her up."

This is horrifying and indefensible.

However, Whitmer ought to take the pushback from responsible protesters seriously. She needs to use the minimal force necessary—not the maximum possible—to maintain public buy-in. If she is seen as too power-hungry, she will lose legitimacy. Instead of defeating coronavirus, she'll spark civil unrest.

Correction: The article mis-identified the state originally.