Michigan Gov. Whitmer calls on GOP lawmakers to approve mask requirement

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called on Republican lawmakers Thursday to approve a statewide mask requirement as a top health official said Michigan was at a “tipping point” in its fight against COVID-19.

The requirement is already in place through an order from Whitmer’s Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. But the Democratic governor said the policy is “critical” and “deserves the Legislature’s stamp of approval.”

“This is the law under epidemic orders, but we do think that it would be helpful to our health, our safety and our economy if it was codified in a bipartisan way by the Legislature,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer sent a letter Monday formally making the request to Senate Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering. She highlighted the appeal during a Thursday afternoon press conference.

The briefing came two days after the presidential election and a day after the state set a new daily record of confirmed COVID-19 cases with 4,101 reported.

COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have been trending upward in Michigan for more than a month. Last week, the state reported a record number of new cases: 20,154. It was the third straight week with a record weekly total.

On Wednesday, there were 1,925 adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Michigan, more than double the 993 hospitalized adults two weeks ago, according to state data.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Chief Medical Executive and MDHHS Chief Deputy for Health Dr. Joneigh Khaldun provide an update on COVID-19 in Michigan, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020.

Jumps in deaths tied to the virus usually occur later after hospitalizations increase, said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive. Michigan, which has been battling the virus for nearly eight months, is at a “tipping point,” Khaldun said.

“The politics” of wearing masks had “gotten in the way” of stepping up to combat the virus, Whitmer said. If Republican lawmakers got on board with the requirement, it would help, she contended.

The Democratic governor highlighted a tweet by Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has said wearing a mask is among the things people can do to “best protect yourself and those you love.”

“Let’s work together to avoid these preventable deaths and build confidence in our economy,” Whitmer wrote in her letter lawmakers. “That is why once again, I urge you to pass legislation requiring all Michiganders to wear masks.”

After the Michigan Supreme Court knocked down a law that allowed Whitmer to declare states of emergency and keep them in place without legislative input, Shirkey said he opposed a mask mandate.

“I still think we have a responsibility to consider the health of those around us,” he said, adding, however, “There will be no caucus support in the Senate, at least, for state mandates for things like masks.”

Whitmer’s press conference occurred two days after Republicans maintained control of the Michigan House. Senators this year were not up for election.

Asked Thursday about the potential for another stay-at-home order to combat the spread of the virus, the governor said the “fundamentals” of what was occurring with COVID-19 when she issued the order in March are different from current circumstances.

But that doesn’t mean “aggressive actions” won’t have to be taken if the situation continues to deteriorate, she said.

Amid the rising numbers, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced an order on Oct. 29 to require bars and restaurants to begin tracking the names and phone numbers of customers in case they need to be reached as part of contact tracing efforts.

The state essentially adjusted the order on Tuesday to recommend, but not require bars and restaurants to deny entry to customers who refuse to provide their contact information. 

Overall, the state has reported 192,096 cases of COVID-19 and 7,419 deaths linked to it since revealing the first infections on March 10. As of Friday, 121,093 people were considered “recovered.”

cmauger@detroitnews.com