How Michigan became ground zero for COVID-19 debate

On a humid summer evening in a public park in western Michigan, hundreds of local Republicans eat grilled chicken and listen to GOP candidates for office. They keep dropping their plastic cutlery to express loud dislike for the state's Democratic governor.
"Who's ready to get rid of Gretchen Whitmer?" Former Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard pleads with the crowd to thunderous applause. "How about a 'Heil, Whitmer?'", Asks country representative candidate Mick Bricker with a Nazi greeting. There is a pause, a few gasps, and then an even louder clap.
The anger here is almost entirely motivated by one thing: the pandemic. During the peak of COVID-19 in 2020, Governor Whitmer and Michigan were elevated to an epicenter of pandemic partisan polarization as state conservatives and then-President Donald Trump opposed Ms. Whitmer's lockdown measures, which were among the strictest in the nation. Under an emergency law created in 1945 in response to a Detroit uprising, Ms. Whitmer banned Michigandans from visiting their own second homes, banned the use of motor boats, and banned some stores from selling gardening or painting supplies, among other things.
Many voters across the state supported Ms. Whitmer's actions, and her approval ratings rose 15 points in the first few months of the lockdown. But they also sparked a backlash, with anger among opponents sparking armed protests at the State Capitol and product recalls.
“Can you imagine being told you can't garden?” Tudor Dixon, one of eight Republicans who have announced running for governor, asks the crowd in Hagar Park. "I said, 'Not in America." Well, it wasn't in America. It was in a state. "
The Republicans' efforts to recall Ms. Whitmer were unsuccessful. Last month, the GOP-controlled legislature succeeded in repealing the state law on which Ms. Whitmer relied as the legal authority for many of her actions: the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act.
But now, almost a year and a half after the pandemic, the partisan divisions are showing little sign of weakening. After a fleeting feeling early in the summer that the virus could finally recede, the Delta variant has brought new spikes in cases, sparking renewed debates across the country over masking requirements and stronger vaccine demands. Public health has become a dividing line between blue and red states in many ways. In Michigan, the state itself is sharply divided.
"When Florida does one thing and New York does the other, they can laugh at each other for thousands of miles," says Josh Pasek, a political communications expert at the University of Michigan. "But here you have a lot of forces that play out across the country, in a deeper way."
Strong divisions
All states have different demographics, but Michigan is particularly strong. With its union-friendly, university-heavy, mostly black cities in the south and its rural farmland in the north, Michigan has in a way condensed the entire political spectrum into one electoral house.
Ms. Whitmer, a former state lawmaker, won the Michigan governorate in 2018 by running for pragmatic problem solver, putting ideology aside and simply "fixing the damn roads." She flipped over nine counties that had gone to President Trump. After four months in office, her approval rating reached 51 percent after negotiating auto insurance reform plans with Republican-led lawmakers.
Then the pandemic hit. In March 2020, Ms. Whitmer issued a sweeping stay-at-home order that initially met with widespread public support: a poll at the time found that 69% of Michigan residents supported it, including 61% of self-proclaimed Republicans.
Some conservative protests began after it tightened restrictions in April. Your poll numbers fell by spring 2021. But they stay well above the water. A poll released early last month found that 50% of Michigan residents approve of their job performance, while 44% disagree.
In the past year and a half, opponents of Whitmer have organized several protests at the State Capitol in Lansing and filed more than a dozen product recalls. Armed protesters stormed the Capitol at a rally in April 2020, a scene that later played out in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. In October 2020, the FBI arrested more than a dozen members of a local militia group for conspiracy to kidnap Ms. Whitmer, despite the defendants arguing that it was a captivity.
Whitmer supporters say the governor did what she had to do in an unprecedented time. The Midwest led the country in cases per capita last fall, at a rate that was at times more than double that of other regions. Michigan currently ranks 12th in COVID-19-related deaths per 100,000 population.
"If anything, I think it could have been stricter," says Scott McConkey, a retired chemical engineer from central Michigan, adding that he sympathizes with the difficult tradeoffs political leaders have had to weigh.
"Michigan has still not fully recovered from the auto industry's demise, damaging Michigan's economy to save lives - an extremely difficult decision to make for anyone, Republican or Democrat," said McConkey.
In fact, Michigan's economic health looks relatively good so far in 2021. It has the largest GDP growth in the Midwest and an unemployment rate of 5%, which is below the national average.
"I don't see how Republicans can see this and say they did the wrong thing," said Jody LaMacchia, chairman of the Oakland County Democrats. "All signs point to great success."
Sexism in the Workplace?
Rae Ann Fortin sits in the back row of chairs at a barbecue in Ottawa County and says she never took part in a political campaign before this year. She now volunteers for Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor who is running for Michigan’s Republican nomination for governor.
"Covid did it for me," says Ms. Fortin, who works in a doctor's office outside of Grand Rapids. Like many Michigan Conservatives, she says Ms. Whitmer's pandemic restrictions made her feel an urgent need to retake state office.
For many opponents, it wasn't the initial lockdown that bothered them so much, but the failure to return to normal in time. Even as other states fully reopened, Ms. Whitmer extended many of her restrictions until last fall and even this spring.
"Your policy started well," says Mr Soldano, the GOP candidate. "But then she told us to cancel Thanksgiving and Christmas and cancel schools," he continues. “And other schools around the country were personal, no mask requirement, and they were 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 closed it, but voters across the state are still campaigning for the Kalamazoo father as the leader of the anti-Whitmer lockdown movement. He has proven to be an early leader in the crowded Republican field when it comes to fundraising. But the state of the race is likely to change when former Detroit Police Chief James Craig kicks off his campaign, and rumors of a run by Mr. Trump's Secretary of Education Betsy Devos continue to circulate.
Many Whitmer supporters say the Republican opposition to them has more than a hint of sexism. Speaking at a local event in late March, Michigan Republican Chairman Ron Weiser said the party was preparing the Lansing "three witches" to be "burned at the stake" in 2022, referring to Ms. Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. and Attorney General Dana Nessel.
"I think it just has to do with a strong woman at the top," says Ms. LaMacchia. "She was more focused on protecting the Michigandans than on their re-election and that is really something to be cherished."
Even so, it didn't help that Ms. Whitmer was caught breaking some of her own orders.
She left the state to attend President Biden's inauguration and visit her father, angering many Michiganers, such as Ms. Dixon, who were not allowed to visit their own elderly relatives. In late May, Ms. Whitmer was photographed maskless in an indoor restaurant with 12 people at her table while the state still had a ban on groups of more than six people dining together. Mrs. Whitmer later apologized.
Split over vaccinations
On a hot Saturday afternoon in late July, around three dozen protesters stand outside the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Waving signs reading “You are not free without choice” and “My body, my choice includes vaccines” reject compulsory COVID-19 vaccination for employees of Trinity Health, a system of 90 hospitals in 22 states. based in Michigan.
"[The vaccination surge] is entirely political," says Jenni Palencik, a hospital nurse, who says she refuses to get a COVID-19 shot because she thinks the process has been rushed. "Our governor is a Democrat, so she only goes with the party line to get people vaccinated."
"[The vaccination spurt] already defined my voice in 2022," said Rock Lewis, a health care buyer in the Detroit area.
Polls show a clear gap in vaccination rates between Republicans and Democrats. According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, U.S. circles that voted for President Joe Biden had a vaccination rate of nearly 47% in early July, compared to 35% in counties that voted for Mr Trump.
That's the case in Michigan, where several of the counties with the largest margins for Mr Trump in 2020 are also the ones with the lowest vaccination rates. Between the 10 counties that support Trump the most in Michigan and the 10 counties with the lowest vaccination rates, there are four counties on both lists.
Anne Miller spent the pandemic working as an intensive care nurse in Kalamazoo. When asked how the last year and a half has been, she laughs darkly.
“Emotionally, physically exhausting. That's the best way to describe it, ”says Ms. Miller.
Too many anti-vaccination campaigners in the country believe they can count on other Americans to get the vaccine, she says. "People get drawn into this false information and it costs people their lives."
Jamie Cree, another nurse in the intensive care unit in Kalamazoo, says the past year was “completely different” than anything she has seen in her four decades at work.
Opponents say, "'We have our rights' - well, I think if it's just you and your family, OK, but it's not," says Ms. Cree. "I have a granddaughter who is 2 1/2 years old and she can't get the vaccine."
She has trouble understanding how public health has been politicized, she adds.
“I think [Whitmer] did her best to save the people of her state. I don't think it was an evil force that she was trying to be against anyone. She tried to save lives, ”says Ms. Cree. “This is science. It's not political. "
Recently, President Biden announced that the federal government's workforce of around 4 million people will need to provide evidence of vaccination or additional rules and tests. 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.
As with other states, Michigan has seen an increase in cases over the past few weeks. According to the New York Times, cases have increased 166% in the past two weeks. The state is just below median for vaccinations, with 59.4% of the adult population fully vaccinated.
Vaccination numbers have increased in the past three weeks after having decreased in the previous two months. But that didn't change Ms. Palencik's opinion, she says.
“Public health is increasingly encroaching on personal freedoms,” she adds.
“I don't want to lose everything I've worked for. It's been my whole life here, ”says Ms. Palencik, pointing to the hospital behind her. During the first week of August, Ms. Palencik celebrates her 23rd year in the Trinity Health System. "I don't want it to come to that, but I'll let them fire me."
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In this article:
Gretchen Whitmer
49th Governor of Michigan
Donald Trump
45th President of the United States

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