GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer joined WOOD TV8 for a virtual town hall Thursday, answering citizens’ questions from email, video calls and phone about how the state is responding to coronavirus.
Her primary message: The stay-at-home order she issued earlier this week is not optional and following it is the best thing we can do to put a stranglehold on coronavirus.
“To get through this, we must all do our part,” Whitmer reminded her constituents. “Stay home. Stay safe. Save lives.”
WHAT DOES THE STAY-AT-HOME ORDER COVER?
After News 8 put out a request for questions for the governor, more than 3,000 from all over the state flooded in. Among the most common questions were about the order Whitmer issued Monday telling residents to stay at home unless they must leave.
The goal of the order: slow the spread of coronavirus so that hospitals can handle the number of severe cases. Dr. Norm Beauchamp, the executive vice president for Health Sciences at Michigan State University, who joined the governor at the town hall, said that the virus generally spreads through close and prolonged contact, so that’s the type of contact we’re working to prevent.
“I want to be clear: You can go to the grocery store,” Whitmer reminded people in prepared remarks as the town hall began. “You can go to the pharmacy to get your prescription filled. You can fill up your car with gas, go outside and walk your dog or go for a run. But I want everyone to be smart. Take care of yourselves and each other. Stay inside — for the daughter who has asthma, the grandpa with COPD, the sister with MS, and for yourself, for your community.”
She said while the order allows people to go out for outdoor exercise, recreational travel like just taking a drive is not allowed.
She made it clear that everyone should take the stay-at-home order seriously.
“What the order says, essentially, is that unless you are in a life-sustaining business, you should be home. You shouldn’t be working,” Whitmer said. “Businesses know that they should be closed if they’re not life-sustaining.”
She said that most businesses are abiding by the order, but that those who “play fast and loose” with the directive could face fines or even the loss of their license.
Essential businesses should follow as many social distancing practices as possible, including keeping people 6 feet apart, and encourage employees to wash their hands frequently.
Whitmer also reminded everyone that the stay-at-home order is temporary, but wasn’t yet prepared to say when it would be lifted.
“Right now, playing your part looks like staying home and not spreading this virus,” Whitmer said.
She also noted we won’t see the effects of the aggressive social distancing for at least two weeks. Some parts of New York State have started to see similar measures start to level off the number of cases.
WHAT ABOUT SCHOOL?
Whitmer shut down every K-12 school in the state March 16. She couldn’t yet say when class would be back in session, though it certainly won’t be until after April 13 under her latest executive order. A decision on whether the rest of the school year will be canceled outright could be made in the next week or so.
She did promise that the state would do whatever it could to help kids overcome the delay in their education, regardless of how long that ends up being.
“What we’re going to do is continue to work to ensure that your kids get the education and the support that they need so that they’re not losing what they’ve gained this school year,” she said. “Michigan has so many different districts with so many different assets and abilities because of just the difference in funding historically and resources, and so we’ve got to make sure we’ve got equitable solutions that ensures real education for all of our kids. And that’s complicated, it takes time, but it’s one of the most important things we are working on right now.”
Her immediate concern, she said, was students’ safety.
WHAT ABOUT STATE TAXES?
The federal government has pushed back the deadline to file your federal tax returns to July 15, and several cities that collect income taxes have pushed back dates, too. Whitmer said Michigan was eying its deadline and would have an announcement on that front Friday.
WHAT ABOUT TESTING?
The United States on Thursday became the nation with the highest number of confirmed cases in the world, higher even than China, where coronavirus originated, or Italy and Spain, where the pandemic has stretched hospital systems to their limits.
Michigan has recorded some of the highest coronavirus numbers in the country: nearly 2,900 confirmed cases and 60 deaths. Most of those are in Detroit and the surrounding area. The state’s chief medical executive says the numbers will grow. Dr. Beauchamp noted metro Detroit was seeing some of the most rapid growth in cases in the country, alongside places like New York City and New Orleans.
“Really embracing this stay-in-place, it’s incredibly important,” he said.
Whitmer said the state still doesn’t have enough testing kits or personal protection equipment to really get a clear understanding of the spread, something she said has been a frustration for governors in other states, too.
“We’ve not ever had as many tests as we really need to be conducting,” she said. “We are now in a position where we have to prioritize who gets the test. … We do not still have enough tests in order to do the robust kind of data collection that we should be.”
Whitmer’s administration is asking hospitals across the state to be prepared for “surge,” a sudden increase in the number of coronavirus patients, and “chip in where they can.” The goal is not to move patients around, but rather to make sure that patients’ needs can be met everywhere.
“The more COVID-19 patients that are going to present in our hospitals in critical condition, the harder it is for any of us to be able to get the care that we need,” Whitmer said. “And that’s why, for all of our sake, staying home and mitigating spread is the most important, really the only, tool we have right now and we’re asking everyone to do their part.”
Whitmer said the state has managed to get hold of more personal protection equipment, including masks, but that it’s not enough. Some hospitals are having staff use a single disposable mask for an entire shift. They’re supposed to be changed after each patient. She urged people and businesses to donate whatever medical supplies they have.
WHAT ABOUT CHILD CARE?
Whitmer said the only child care centers that are up and running should be those supporting the families of essential employees. She said if you know of a business that’s ignoring the order, you should provide that information to authorities.
WHAT ABOUT UNEMPLOYMENT?
The state’s Unemployment Insurance Agency has been swamped with new applicants since bars, restaurant dining rooms and other businesses were compelled to close.
The governor promised as much state support as possible for negatively affected businesses, including child care centers. She has already signed executive orders extending unemployment benefits and removed some requirements for application to try to speed up that process.
“Every decision that I’ve made has consequences, and as I’ve said, they weigh heavily, but at the end of the day I know the most important thing I can do as your governor, my mission, is to protect the people of our state. And that’s why these orders are so important and that’s why everyone, everyone is governed by this,” she said. “I know this is stressful and difficult and I’m asking you to do your part despite that because we’re all in this together.”
WHAT ABOUT MORTGAGES AND RENT?
Whitmer has signed executive orders saying you cannot be evicted or lose your home to tax foreclosure while her state of emergency is in effect.
WHAT ABOUT THE WAY TRUMP IS HANDLING THE PANDEMIC?
The governor made it clear that she would keep her stay-at-home order in effect as long as necessary based on what she’s learning from health officials, regardless of President Donald Trump’s stated desire to start easing them by Easter.
“What we really need as a country right now is consistent, medically accurate information,” she said. “What we also need is a national strategy.”
She said a “patchwork” of governors trying to figure it out won’t cut it and that she has conveyed that to the White House.
She said inconsistency at the national level is undermining her and other governors’ efforts to combat the virus.
Whitmer said she has asked Trump to declare a disaster zone in Michigan to open up access to additional federal support.
WHAT ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH?
“We haven’t seen something like this in many of our lifetimes, and the idea that it causes stress, it causes anxiety, it causes fear, and that can then lead to this incredible sense of feeling lost and anxious,” Dr. Beauchamp said.
He said we should all try to take care of our physical health, take time out and reach out through phone or internet to our loved ones to combat the difficulty of staying apart.
“Let’s look out for each other,” he said, adding, “Seek out resources that are out there that can give you a break and help engage with the rest of the world.”
And of course, he said, do not hesitate to reach out for help if you’re in crisis.
WHAT ABOUT THE ECONOMY?
The widespread business closures not just in Michigan, but nationwide, are already affecting the economy.
“If we don’t take this on, this aggressive virus on with aggressive measures, it will extend the length of time that we are confronting it,” Whitmer said.
She said that would damage the economy for longer and argued her aggressive action now is the best way to prevent long-term strain. She said she knows things are hard now and the state is already trying to mitigate that.
She said nations that let up on control measures too soon have seen a second spike in cases, and she said that would be “horrible” for Michigan’s economy if it were to happen here.
“All of these are factors that drive every decision we make,” Whitmer said. “We’re going to continue to put the health of Michigan people first and that’s always going to be in the best interest of our economy.”
WHAT CORONAVIRUS LOOKS LIKE
COVID-19 presents with a fever, cough and shortness of breath. For most who contract it, symptoms are mild. The people most at risk to develop severe complications are the elderly and those with preexisting health problems.
If you think you have coronavirus, call your health care provider. Unless you are in need of emergency help, do not go to the emergency room. Get advice from a doctor over the phone or a televisit and they will direct you on how to get tested.
In addition to following social distancing guidelines, you should also follow common-sense health practices, like washing your hands frequently for 20 seconds with soap and warm water, coughing into your arm or a tissue rather than your hands and avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands.