Weed Up, Hoes Down in Whitmer's Michigan

Critics say Democratic governor's stay-at-home order is arbitrary and favors big businesses

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer / Getty Images
April 15, 2020

Michigan's Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer is facing bipartisan criticism of a stay-at-home order that shuttered gardening stores but deemed marijuana dispensaries and lottery ticket vendors "essential" to coping with the coronavirus.

Business owners are criticizing Whitmer's executive order, which went into effect April 9, as overly restrictive. While the governor has developed a national profile during the pandemic thanks in part to a feud with President Donald Trump, her critics point to the order's practical inconsistencies. The order allows for the in-person sale of alcohol and lottery tickets, as well as curbside sales of marijuana, but forcibly closes local businesses selling hardware supplies and gardening seeds, which critics argue allow residents to be more self-sufficient. The policy even extended to the inside of grocery and department stores deemed essential, as businesses roped off "nonessential" sections to comply with the governor's order. 

Whitmer acknowledged the criticism in a press conference on Monday but declined to ease the restrictions, stressing the need to "keep doing what we need to do to get past this moment."

"I understand the incredible hardship that people are going through. The worry about your job, the depression of isolation … the confusion of just trying to figure out why you can buy a lottery ticket and not seeds. I get it. It's tough," Whitmer said. "But those days where we can resume some normalcy, they are on the horizon if we keep doing what we need to do to get past this moment."

The backlash comes in the midst of the governor's semi-public audition for a slot on the Democratic presidential ticket. After a March feud with President Trump, outlets from Politico to NBC News and the New York Times have praised Whitmer's leadership during the pandemic. 

Whitmer has embraced the national spotlight, making an April appearance on Comedy Central's The Daily Show sporting a "That woman from Michigan" t-shirt, a reference to the March 27 coronavirus briefing in which President Trump used the phrase to refer to her. Since then, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has named Whitmer as a vice presidential contender. 

Whitmer's critics say the governor is politicizing the pandemic in a bid to secure a spot on the presidential ticket. Dr. Ann Marie Sastry, a small business owner and former engineering professor at the University of Michigan, said fellow business leaders are "looking for more than one-liners."

"Politicization is good for politics, but not governance. My business colleagues are looking for more than one-liners. We want to see solid, innovative plans," Sastry told the Washington Free Beacon. "Shutting down decisively was not the hard part, and did not spare Detroit from a crisis."

Whitmer, who did not respond to requests for comment, defended the shutdown on the Today Show Wednesday, saying that the activities restricted by the order are already curtailed by recent snowfall.

"The fact that we're cracking down on people traveling between homes, or planting, or landscaping, or golfing, really for a couple more weeks isn't going to meaningfully impact people's ability to do it because the snow will do it in and of itself," she said.

Opposition to Whitmer's order has spiked in recent days, with more than 4,000 people planning to attend a Wednesday protest at the state capitol in Lansing. Residents poured into Lansing Wednesday morning, causing traffic jams hours before the demonstration was scheduled to begin.

An online petition demanding a recall election has garnered more than 245,000 signatures, and a "Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine" Facebook group has amassed more than 338,000 members in less than a week. On Monday, Whitmer criticized the protest by linking it to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose family has given to the Michigan Freedom Fund, one of the protest's cohosts. A family spokesman said they did not fund the protest. Michigan Freedom Fund executive director Tony Daunt later revealed that the group spent just $250 promoting the protest online, adding that DeVos "has nothing to do" with it.

Hostility toward Whitmer's order mounted quickly as Michiganders realized the damage it did to local businesses, according to David Guenthner of Michigan's conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

"We immediately saw all the practical implications of the order—people are livid," Guenthner told the Free Beacon. Guenthner says that Whitmer bowed to pressure from large corporate interests at the expense of local entrepreneurs and workers by declaring large retailers with more than 50,000 square feet of customer floor space essential. The provision means that big-box stores like Walmart and Home Depot can circumvent the ban on the in-person sale of nonessential items by offering such items online for curbside pickup, while small, speciality retailers that do not sell essential items are forced to close.

"The order enriches multi-state, large home improvement companies while bankrupting local businesses at their most critical revenue time of the year," Guenthner said.

Whitmer initially earned bipartisan praise for taking quick action as coronavirus cases spiked in the Detroit area by issuing a stay-at-home order on March 23. 

That order, however, was less draconian than the one that went into effect April 9. Whitmer ramped up her response to the pandemic in early April as new coronavirus cases in the state trended downward and her national profile rose. She asked state lawmakers to extend the emergency declaration behind her stay-at-home order for another 70 days before expanding the order to its current form, a move that sparked dissent from state GOP leaders.

"Instead of the government defining who in our state is essential or non-essential, we need to transition and begin asking which activities are safe or unsafe," state house speaker Lee Chatfield said in an opinion piece published by the Detroit News. "If we don't adopt this reasonable, risk-based approach soon, the COVID-19 disaster will be much worse than it needs to be for thousands of Michigan families."

Criticism of Whitmer's extended order has not been limited to Republican leadership. Jim Ananich, the Democrats' leader in the Michigan state senate, conceded that questions over the order were "legitimate," though he accused Republicans of ramping up attacks on Whitmer "as soon as the governor started being mentioned by others as a potential vice-presidential nominee." Democratic state representative Karen Whitsett has gone further, arguing that the aggressive shutdown order has not addressed the needs of Detroit residents. "This is unreal what we are living here. We have a governor who is not helping us. This is our reality," she said in a Monday radio interview.

Whitmer has remained steadfast. When Republican lawmakers voted to extend the shutdown declaration for 23 days instead of the 70 Whitmer requested, the Michigan Democrat cited a World War II-era law that grants the governor expansive emergency powers without legislative consent. 

Whitmer's controversial order will remain in place for the foreseeable future in a state that could play a decisive role in the November election.

President Trump narrowly won Michigan in 2016, becoming the first Republican to carry the state since 1988. Biden, who spearheaded Hillary Clinton's outreach efforts in the state in 2016, has dedicated extensive campaign resources to wooing local voters. That spending has paid dividends, as Biden won the March primary by 17 points over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), who carried the state in his 2016 primary run.