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How Michigan became ground zero for COVID-19 debate

UniqueThis 6 Aug 4

On a humid summer evening at a public park in western Michigan, hundreds of local Republicans are eating barbecued chicken and listening to GOP candidates for office. Time and again, they drop their plastic cutlery to voice loud antipathy for the state’s Democratic governor.

“Who’s ready to get rid of Gretchen Whitmer?” former Speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives Tom Leonard asks the crowd, to roaring applause. “What about a ‘Heil, Whitmer?’” asks state representative candidate Mick Bricker, making a Nazi salute. There is a pause, a few gasps, and then more raucous clapping.  

The ire here is motivated almost entirely by one thing: the pandemic. During the height of COVID-19 in 2020, Governor Whitmer and Michigan became an epicenter of pandemic partisan polarization, as state conservatives and then-President Donald Trump whipped up opposition to Ms. Whitmer’s lockdown measures, which were among the strictest in the nation. Using an Emergency Powers Act created in 1945 in response to a Detroit riot, Ms. Whitmer banned Michiganders from visiting their own second homes, banned the use of motorboats, and prohibited some stores from selling gardening or painting supplies, among other restrictions. 

With the realization setting in that the pandemic could be a long slog, polarization over public health measures is intensifying. And perhaps nowhere are the extremes more clearly on display than in Michigan.

Many voters across the state backed Ms. Whitmer’s actions, and her approval ratings rose 15 points in the early months of the lockdown. But they also produced a backlash, with anger among opponents spawning armed protests in the State Capitol and recall efforts.

“Can you imagine being told you couldn’t garden?” Tudor Dixon, one of eight Republicans who have already announced gubernatorial candidacies, asks the crowd in Hagar Park. “I said, ‘Not in America.’ Well, it wasn’t in America. It was in one state.”

Republican efforts to recall Ms. Whitmer were unsuccessful. Last month, the GOP-controlled legislature did manage to repeal the state law Ms. Whitmer relied upon as legal authority for many of her actions: the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act.

But now, almost a year and a half into the pandemic, partisan divisions show little sign of lessening. After a fleeting sense in the beginning of the summer that the virus might be receding for good, the Delta variant has brought a new surge in cases, leading to renewed debates across the country over mask mandates and stronger pushes for vaccine requirements. Public health has become in many ways a dividing line between blue states and red states. In Michigan, the state itself is sharply divided. 

“When Florida is doing one thing and New York is doing another, they can laugh at one another across thousands of miles,” says Josh Pasek, a political communication expert at the University of Michigan. “But here, you have a lot of the forces that are playing out across the country playing out in a deeper way.” 

Stark divisions

All states have diverse demographics, but Michigan’s are particularly stark. With its pro-union, university-heavy, majority Black cities to the south, and its rural farmland to the north, Michigan in some ways has the entire political spectrum condensed inside one electorally important home. 

Ms. Whitmer, a former state legislator, won the Michigan governorship in 2018 by running as a pragmatic problem-solver who would put ideology aside and just “fix the damn roads.” She flipped nine counties that had gone to President Trump. After four months in office her approval ratings reached 51 percent, following her negotiation of auto insurance reform plans with the Republican-led state legislature. 

Rock Lewis, Karen Green, and Ann Clark (from left to right) participate in a "Forced Jab" protest outside of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan July 17, 2021.

Then the pandemic hit. In March of 2020 Ms. Whitmer instituted a wide-ranging stay-at-home order that was initially met with broad public approval: one poll at the time found 69% of Michigan residents supported it, including 61% of self-identified Republicans.

Some conservative protests began after she tightened the restrictions in April. Her poll numbers dropped through the spring of 2021. But they remain well above-water. A survey released early last month showed 50% of Michigan residents approve of her job performance, with 44% disapproving.

Over the past year and a half, Whitmer opponents have organized multiple protests at the State Capitol in Lansing and filed more than a dozen recall petitions. At one rally in April of 2020, armed protesters stormed the Capitol building, a scene not unlike what later unfolded at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. In October 2020, the FBI arrested more than a dozen members of a local militia group for plotting to kidnap Ms. Whitmer, though the defendants are arguing it was entrapment.   

Whitmer supporters say the governor did what she needed to do during an unprecedented time. The Midwest led the country in cases per capita last fall, with a rate that was at times more than double that of other regions. Michigan currently ranks 12th overall in COVID-19-related deaths per 100,000 residents. 

“If anything, I think she could have been more strict,” says Scott McConkey, a retired chemical engineer from central Michigan, adding that he sympathizes with the difficult tradeoffs political leaders had to weigh.

“Michigan is still not fully recovered from the auto industry leaving, so to inflict damage on the economy of Michigan in order to save lives – that’s a decision that has to be extremely tough for anyone, Republican or Democrat,” says Mr. McConkey. 

In fact, Michigan’s economic health thus far in 2021 looks relatively strong. It has the greatest GDP increase in the Midwest and a 5% unemployment rate, which is below the national average.

“I don’t see how Republicans can look at that and say she did the wrong thing,” says Jody LaMacchia, chair of the Oakland County Democrats. “All signs point to major success.”

Sexism at work?

Sitting in the back row of chairs at the Ottawa County barbecue, Rae Ann Fortin says she would never have gotten involved in a political campaign before this year. Now, she’s volunteering for Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor who is running for Michigan’s Republican nomination for governor.

“It was COVID that did it for me,” says Ms. Fortin, who works at a medical office outside Grand Rapids. Like many Michigan conservatives, she says Ms. Whitmer’s pandemic restrictions made her feel an urgent need to take back state offices.

For many opponents, it wasn’t the initial lockdown that bothered them so much as the failure to begin returning to normal in a timely manner. Even as other states reopened fully, Ms. Whitmer extended many of her restrictions into last fall and even this spring.

“Her policies started good,” says Mr. Soldano, the GOP candidate. “But then she told us to cancel Thanksgiving and Christmas, and canceled schools,” he continues. “And other schools across the country were in person, no mask mandates, and they were doing just fine. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Mr. Soldano became a popular figure among Michigan conservatives earlier this year when he started a Facebook group “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine.” The group had hundreds of thousands of members before Facebook shut it down, but voters across the state still champion the father from Kalamazoo as a leader of the anti-Whitmer-lockdown movement. He has emerged as an early frontrunner in the crowded field of Republicans in terms of fundraising. But the state of the race will likely change as former Detroit police chief James Craig gets his campaign off the ground, and rumors continue to swirl about a run by Mr. Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy Devos. 

Many Whitmer supporters say the Republican opposition to her has more than a whiff of sexism. At a local event in late March, Michigan Republican chair Ron Weiser said the party was getting the “three witches” in Lansing “ready for the burning at the stake” in 2022, referring to Ms. Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Attorney General Dana Nessel. 

“I just think it has to do with a powerful woman at the helm,” says Ms. LaMacchia. “She was more focused on keeping Michiganders safe than her reelection, and that’s really something to cherish.”

Still, it didn’t help that Ms. Whitmer got caught breaking some of her own orders. 

She left the state to attend President Biden’s inauguration and visit her father, which angered many Michiganders such as Ms. Dixon, who were barred from visiting their own elderly relatives. In late May, Ms. Whitmer was photographed maskless at an indoor restaurant with 12 people at her table, while the state still had a ban against groups larger than six people dining together. Ms. Whitmer later apologized.  

Split over vaccinations

On a hot Saturday afternoon in late July, some three dozen protesters stand outside Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Waving signs that read “You are not free without choice,” and “My Body, my choice includes vaccines too,” they’re opposing a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for employees of Trinity Health, a system of 90 hospitals across 22 states, which is based in Michigan.

“[The vaccination push] is entirely politically driven,” says Jenni Palencik, a nurse at the hospital who says she is refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccination because she thinks the process was rushed. “Our governor is a Democrat, so she’s just going with the party line to get people vaccinated.” 

“[The vaccination push] has already defined my vote in 2022,” says Rock Lewis, a medical supply buyer from the Detroit area.

Surveys show a significant divide in vaccination rates between Republicans and Democrats. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, U.S. counties that voted for President Joe Biden had a vaccination rate of almost 47% as of early July, compared to a rate of 35% for counties that voted for Mr. Trump.

That’s the case in Michigan, where several of the counties with the greatest margins for Mr. Trump in 2020 are also the ones with the lowest vaccination rates. Between the 10 most pro-Trump counties in Michigan, and the bottom 10 counties for vaccination rates, four counties find themselves on both lists. 

Anne Miller has spent the pandemic working as an intensive care nurse in Kalamazoo. When asked how the past year and a half has been, she laughs darkly. 

“Emotionally, physically exhausting. That’s the best way I can describe it,” says Ms. Miller.

Too many of the country’s vaccine opponents think they can rely on other Americans to get the vaccine, she says. “People get sucked into this false information, and it’s costing people their lives.” 

Jamie Cree, another ICU nurse in Kalamazoo, says this past year has been “completely different” from anything she’s experienced in her four decades on the job.

Vaccine opponents say, “‘We have our rights’ – well, I guess if it only affects you and your family, then OK, but that’s not it,” says Ms. Cree. “I have a granddaughter who is 2 1/2, and she can’t get the vaccine.”

She has trouble understanding just how public health got so politicized, she adds. 

“I think [Whitmer] was trying her very best to save the population of her state. I don’t think it was some evil force that she was trying to be against anyone. She was trying to save people’s lives,” says Ms. Cree. “This is science. It’s not political.”

Recently, President Biden announced that the federal government’s workforce of about 4 million people will be required to show proof of vaccination or be subject to additional rules and testing. Many private workplaces are following suit, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this week that the city will soon require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for indoor dining, gyms, and entertainment.

Like other states, Michigan has seen a rise in cases in recent weeks. Cases are up 166% over the last two weeks, according to New York Times data. The state is just below the median in terms of vaccinations, with 59.4% of the adult population fully vaccinated.

Vaccination numbers have increased for the past three weeks, after having dropped in the preceding two months. But that hasn’t changed Ms. Palencik’s mind, she says. 

“Public health is infringing on personal freedoms more and more,” she adds. 

“I don’t want to lose everything I’ve worked for. This is my whole life here,” says Ms. Palencik, gesturing to the hospital behind her. The first week of August marks Ms. Palencik’s 23rd year with the Trinity Health System. “I don’t want it to come to this, but I’ll let them fire me.”