April 30 | This Week in Government: Reopening Tied to Vaccines; Workgroup Releases Return-to-Office RecommendationsApril 30, 2021
- In Dramatic Change, Reopening Tied to Vaccinations
- Workgroup Releases Employer Recommendations for Returning to Work
- Census: Michigan Loses U.S. House Seat, First Time at 13 Since 1920s
- MEDC Details Pandemic Assistance for Businesses Before Senate Panel
- LEO Grilled Over Union Webinar, Pandemic Rulemaking
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for the first time since the pandemic began laid out specific metrics that will lead to the state eventually lifting all restrictions it has imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, tying the removal of capacity and gathering limits to the percentage of residents who receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“This is a creative way challenging us to rise to this moment and to meet it,” Gov. Whitmer said at a Thursday news briefing. “It’s an opportunity for us to all join arms and to make sure that we get to this goal.”
It is a phased-in approach, tied to the percentage of the population 16 and older that has received its first dose of a vaccine. As of Thursday, 49.6% of the population had received at least one dose.
The phase-in starts at 55%. Two weeks after the state hits that mark on the percentage of the population that has received its first dose, the requirement that all work be done remotely unless it can only be done in person will be lifted. A number of employer groups have urged the state to allow remote work to resume.
Once 60% of the population has had its first dose, the Department of Health and Human Services will increase capacity limits at indoor sports stadiums, funeral homes, conference halls, and banquet centers to 25%. Gym capacity will rise to 50% and the curfew on bars and restaurants will end.
When two weeks have passed after 65% of the population has received its first dose, Gov. Whitmer said all indoor capacity limits would be lifted, bringing to an end more than a year of restrictions on bars, restaurants, retailers, and others. Only social distancing requirements would remain.
Once the state hits 70%, DHHS will lift the epidemic order.
Business groups mostly praised the order, saying it meets what they have requested for some time to have specific metrics on when they can fully reopen. Gov. Whitmer said the plan was developed, in part, with the input of legislative leaders from both parties, though she did not say what input they provided that the plan incorporates.
The Legislature’s Republican leaders, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Farwell), reacted tepidly to the announcement, calling it long overdue. Both have advocated for the state to lift its coronavirus limitations and restrictions.
Gov. Whitmer said a revised DHHS order will be coming in the next day that relaxes outdoor gathering limits and follows new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gov. Whitmer said at the state’s current pace it could achieve 55% by the end of next week, meaning by late May the requirement for work to be done remotely could be lifted.
However, Gov. Whitmer said she did not have an estimate on when the state might hit the other thresholds. She was asked what would happen if the state fails to reach 70% having had their first dose and did not answer the question, saying only this plan depends on people getting vaccinated.
Besides Gov. Whitmer embracing specific measures to fully reopen the economy and social life in the state for the first time, the plan also marked a departure from the governor’s previous emphasis on reached 70% vaccinated status. That would mean 70% having received both doses, not just one dose. The state said about 95% of those taking a two-shot vaccine who have the first dose also have gotten their second dose within the required time period.
Gov. Whitmer was asked about deciding to embrace a metric-based opening rather than weighing a multitude of factors put into context, as her administration has used until now.
“For 11 out of the last 15 months, we didn’t have vaccines. And so we couldn’t tie something to a metric that isn’t really the best tool that we have to get back to normal,” she said, calling the vaccine metric one that will make sense to the public.
There is one significant caveat to the plan.
Gov. Whitmer cautioned that under her plan, if new cases remain greater than 250 per 1 million people as a seven-day average in a Michigan Economic Recovery Committee region at the time of lifting restrictions that accompany reaching 60 or 65%, DHHS may delay implementation in that MERC region.
Currently, only the Upper Peninsula and 17 counties in the northern Lower Peninsula are below the 250 new cases per million in the previous seven days metric. However, Michigan’s case numbers are falling rapidly.
“We believe this is unlikely, but it’s an important safety valve in case something unexpected were to happen,” she said.
DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said the administration also is looking at options to ease restrictions for summer festivals and golf tournaments.
Gov. Whitmer received her second vaccine dose Thursday and said she is planning a small gathering with friends she hasn’t seen in months for two weeks from now.
“We’re going to have a few Oberons. We’re going to share some laughs,” she said. “We’re going to share some strategies on how to best embarrass our children.”
Throughout the pandemic, as Republicans in the Legislature opposed the restrictions Gov. Whitmer put in place, she vowed not to negotiate public health. Asked how recent discussions with legislators fit within that pledge, Gov. Whitmer said taking input and negotiating are very different.
“I think that we all share the goal of getting our state out of this pandemic. What we have articulated here is the path out, and I know that’s been important to – whether it’s business leaders or legislative leaders – we have I think had robust conversations,” she said. “I’m grateful for the time and energy the legislative leaders – all four – have put in toward sharing their thoughts and we’ve shared a lot of information, and I think this product represents some of the best of the work we have been able to do together.”
Gov. Whitmer did not, however, answer a question as to what input legislators provided that her administration incorporated into the plan.
And Shirkey and Wentworth seemed less than enthused at what Gov. Whitmer unveiled.
“It took 400 days too long for the governor to be straightforward about how she will navigate this disease,” Shirkey said in a statement. “By the way, I now know what the governor’s definition is of a ‘good faith effort.'”
It was not clear what Shirkey meant with his comment about a good faith effort.
Wentworth was more positive but still indicated it falls short.
“Far too many Michigan families were pushed to the brink by the state’s heavy-handed and ineffective response to the pandemic,” he said in a statement. “People lost their jobs, kids fell behind in school, and critical benefits came up empty. Republicans in the state Legislature listened to the people and fought for Michigan families. I’m glad we took a stand for the people we represent and used every tool at our disposal to get the governor to this point. Now we need to continue to push to improve this plan and make it work for the people who are still waiting for a real light at the end of the tunnel.”
A couple times during her news briefing, Gov. Whitmer referenced the state being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic.
REACTION: The plan received praise from organized labor and health groups and cautious optimism from business groups.
“We’re grateful to the governor for soliciting input from working folks through this process and proud to have played a vital role in laying out a path to gradually getting back to normal while keeping people safe,” said Josh Pugh of the Michigan AFL-CIO. “We’ll continue to work with the Protect Michigan Commission to get every single one of our 1 million active and retired members vaccinated and look forward to the governor’s support in these efforts.”
Dr. Bobby Mukkamala, president of the Michigan State Medical Society, said the plan is just one more reason for everyone 16 and older in Michigan to get vaccinated.
Some employer groups and the Reopen Michigan Safely Coalition have been alarmed that the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration had begun the process of implementing regular rules to replace the emergency rules now in effect governing workplace operations during the pandemic. Wendy Block, vice president of business advocacy and member engagement at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement the new plan looks positive because businesses are encouraging and providing incentives for vaccination as the path to reopening.
Block cautioned though that the Chamber awaits the Whitmer administration’s plans for altering or eliminating MIOSHA’s emergency and regular rules on workplaces.
Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, praised the plan the governor unveiled.
“The objective benchmarks laid out in the reopening plan are a welcome and critical development. These clear, simple, and objective measures give small businesses some certainty and ability to plan for the future,” Calley said in a statement. “We hope that further clarity will be provided soon, with revised epidemic emergency orders and amended MIOSHA emergency rules.”
The hard-hit hospitality sector welcomed the plan while also making clear they wished this had come long ago.
“We applaud the governor for implementing what the MRLA has been requesting for months – a metric driven plan that offers incentives rather than mandates to drive better outcomes and more opportunity for the imperiled hospitality industry,” said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. “We will continue our partnership with this administration to provide new avenues for restaurants and hotels to inspire and incentivize greater vaccination rates of all Michiganders so that we may quickly move past the era of capacity limits, gathering restrictions, and mitigation.”
Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said the plan is a good step but also warned attaining 65% of those with a first vaccine dose – when restaurants and bars would see the current 50% capacity limit end – could be a ways off.
“Phase 2, which will expand operations for large indoor venues, will help those businesses that have had to cancel weddings, fundraisers, and events for more than a year,” Mr. Ellis said in a statement. “While bars and restaurants are looking forward to reaching Phase 4, for a full reopening, we wish more was included for our industry in earlier phases. Currently, surrounding states are following guidelines that we won’t hit until the third phase.”
Workgroup Releases Employer Recommendations for Returning to Work
A state workgroup on Thursday provided employers several recommendations on safety measures to consider on keeping workers safe when they can return to work in person, saying providing clarity and strong mitigation measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is critical.
The Return to Office Workgroup provided a set of recommendations based on policies and guidance from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Department of Health and Human Services. Also provided was guidance on best practices on keeping employees safe.
Reducing the density of employees in the office to increase safety is one recommendation. Methods such as hybrid work strategies to keep people properly distanced were suggested, as was considering remote work when feasible.
It was recommended to stagger entry time for employees due to daily health screenings to prevent congestion at entrances as well as staggering times for work to begin and end for the same reason.
Workplace policies should clearly outline the ability to quarantine or isolate due to possible COVID-19 exposure and get tested without fear of job loss.
Another recommendation was promoting the use of sick leave time credits to provide paid leave available to employers with under 500 employees. The same was recommended for the use of family leave tax credits available to employers with under 500 employees.
Employers should also consider implementing policies for return to workplaces that provide employees with caregiving obligations with the ability to continue working remotely, such as for individuals who are caring for immune-compromised individuals.
Vaccination information should also be provided to employees, it was recommended, as well as links to vaccine sites and sign-up information. Consideration should be given to partnering with a local public health department to offer on-site vaccination.
Sean Egan, deputy director of labor with the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, said the recommendations are just that, recommendations.
Egan said the group “tried to identify things to flag for employers to keep in mind” as employees begin to return to work.
“It’s going to be important for employers to be prepared,” Egan said.
He said the recommendations are items that should be taken into consideration along with other mitigation measures that may be required upon returning to work in person.
Egan said the recommendations are good ideas for employers to weigh given the governor’s announcement earlier Thursday of metrics for the lifting of restrictions as the percentage of residents who have had at least one vaccine dose reaches certain thresholds.
One of the metrics announced Thursday was that two weeks after 55% of residents 16 and older have had their first vaccine dose that the requirement for all work to be done remotely unless it can only be done in person will be lifted. The metric for in-person work could be reached as soon as this week or next week, opening the door for employees to return to workplaces as soon as late May.
The workgroup began meeting March 15 to develop the recommendations.
Census: Michigan Loses U.S. House Seat, First Time at 13 Since 1920s
Lagging growth across the Midwest was at least one reason for Michigan’s loss of a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after apportionment figures were released, leaving it with just 13, the U.S. Census Bureau announced Monday.
The bureau announced which states would lose, gain, or keep their current apportionment during a livestreamed news conference announcing the first results of the 2020 census.
Michigan was expected to lose a seat in this round, as it has every 10 years since 1970, when the state had its highest number of U.S. House seats at 19. The last time Michigan had 13 seats was throughout the 1920s before rising to 17 through the 1930s and 1940s.
Data from the bureau showed the state’s apportionment population at 10.08 million, with a resident population of 10.07 million and an overseas population of 7,111. In 2010, the bureau counted an apportionment population of 9.91 million in Michigan, with 9.88 million residents and 27,986 people living overseas.
The state was among seven to lose a seat, including California, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, officials with the bureau said Monday.
Florida, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon gained one seat. Texas gained two.
Michigan was expected to lose a seat in this round of the census, continuing a longstanding trend, but some noted that the seat shift in 2020 was slightly smaller overall than expected.
The state joined New York, Ohio, Texas, Florida, Arizona, California, Virginia, Idaho, and New Jersey in the Top 10 runner-up states to almost gain an additional seat, which would have kept Michigan at 14 should that have panned out.
Michigan’s priority rank value was listed at 444 between Idaho and New Jersey. Of interesting historical note, Michigan was first runner-up to gain a seat in the 1940 census, which would have brought it to 18 if it had an additional 5,692 residents.
Three states lost population – Illinois, Mississippi, and West Virginia – but Michigan still lost a seat even though it grew its population by 2% over the last decade.
The bureau has ranked Michigan the 10th most populous state behind North Carolina (which gained one) and Georgia (which remained the same).
Overall, however, the Midwest saw the lowest rate of population growth compared to other national regions, with the U.S South growing by 10.2%, the West by 9.2%, the Northeast by 4.1%, and the Midwest by just 3.1%.
The loss of a seat in the U.S. House also means the loss of a presidential Electoral College vote.
With Michigan’s redistricting process for the first time even being overseen by the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, it is yet unknown as to which of Michigan’s delegation in the House would potentially see their seat disappear.
Those in political circles on social media have already begun to speculate which among them would be losing their district and which would be mapped together, possibly resulting in intraparty primaries particularly on the Democratic side of the ticket.
MEDC Details Pandemic Assistance for Businesses Before Senate Panel
Supports to help manufacture millions of personal protective equipment, coronavirus pandemic response programs, and work to retain jobs in all of Michigan’s 83 counties were just some of the efforts enacted by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation during the hardest months of 2020.
Members of the MEDC detailed those accomplishments and some of the challenges in doing so on Wednesday before the Senate Finance Committee.
Presenting was MEDC’s Chief Operating Officer Amanda Bright McClanahan and Greg Bird, the group’s managing director of legislative and external affairs.
McClanahan said she hoped the presentation would give the Senate committee a better understanding of how the MEDC has supported businesses of all shapes and sizes throughout the state during the pandemic, and how that support helped those businesses sustain economic prosperity last year and hopefully in the years ahead.
“I will be candid with you, (our) mission was put to the test over the last 14 months in so many ways with the incredible uncertainty and challenges that we faced in 2020,” McClanahan said. “We have done everything we can to respond with agility to expand existing programs and to develop specific relief efforts to face not only the crisis that we saw beginning in April of last year, but as we continue to move toward economic recovery and we keep our eye on the future needs of the state.”
The group did so through programs like the Michigan Business Relief Program, which provided $20 million in small business grants and loans, and through a program in partnership with the Legislature to include $100 million in small business relief through the Michigan Restart Program.
MEDC also expanded during the pandemic every program and tool it has, including its Capital Access Program and others for procurement support, connection, international trade, entrepreneurship, and additional innovation initiatives.
Further, the group engaged growth in its community development supports, much like its maritime program, and various mobility efforts that can be tracked now in real-time.
A toolkit for businesses was also added, which has been made available online.
Data on the MEDC website, which was also presented by McClanahan, shows those efforts launched 23 response programs, supported 25,000 companies, and helped retain more than 200,000 jobs.
While the MEDC assisted each of Michigan’s 83 counties, at least 45% of assistance was dedicated to disadvantaged regions of the state.
The largest beneficiary of those supports was the service industry, which includes several businesses that were heavily impacted by COVID-19 health orders and a lack of regular customers, like fitness, recreation, arts and entertainment, personal care, professional services, and accommodations.
Restaurants and bars received the second-largest among of support from the MEDC last year, followed by businesses engaged in other activities like nonprofit work and transportation.
The retail industry received the third-highest amount of support, followed by construction, maintenance, and repair, health care, manufacturing, and agriculture.
To help assist the manufacturing of PPE, McClanahan said the tool to bear in that regard was the MEDC’s matchmaking resources and assistance with securing retooling grants so they could pivot their focus to producing those supplies.
When asked by Sen. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) about how many manufacturers continued PPE-making operations, McClanahan said she could get back to the committee with more information. She did say, however, that several of them made the permanent pivot to creating PPE supplies, which is a notable new market transition.
That said, MEDC did identify gaps in what businesses need in terms of support from them, the state, and the federal government.
“In particular, we remain concerned about businesses that have nine employees or less, businesses that are located in rural communities and businesses that are early tech startups in the very early stages,” McClanahan said. “Many of these businesses did not have access to a number of the federal and state tools that were available and they continue to need support as we move through the recovery phase.”
Additional challenges in the year ahead for MEDC include broadband access and tourism supports.
To address broadband issues, like infrastructure and technology adoption, McClanahan said MEDC has convened a group of stakeholders to examine those hurdles and to help leverage state and federal funding. Already, the MEDC has helped secure an additional $363 million in federal funding to be aimed expanding broadband access.
The future of Michigan tourism faces unique pandemic-related challenges, but McClanahan said the MEDC is continuing to encourage residents to shop local, visit family-owned restaurants and bars, and retail shops in the hearts of the state’s downtown areas.
McClanahan said the pandemic has taught those businesses how to continue operations safely in a pandemic, but more support is needed.
Thankfully, she said, the reignition of Pure Michigan will be helpful in that regard. MEDC is excited to have that program back online after being dormant years earlier, McClanahan added, and has already launched a comeback commercial stating that Michigan is “still pure” and “still here” after a year of turmoil due to COVID-19.
Additional advertising will be aimed at inviting residents to “catch up” with one another at Michigan tourist hotspots, she said, after being away from loved ones and friends through the pandemic.
In other business, the committee reported SB 378, sponsored by committee chair Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake), which provides a qualified child tax credit. More specifically, the bill would establish a $500, nonrefundable tax credit for every child in a family up to 19 years old. It would also allow taxpayers to get back their own money paid on their taxes up to the $500 per dependent.
The credit includes a four-year sunset so Michigan residents could claim the credit for tax
Runestad said the bill was important as constituents and recent news articles have suggested that the cost of having children is keeping couples from having them.
Simply put, the senator said, child care costs are also consuming families that already have them.
He also said that he has anecdotally heard of constituents choosing to not get married as a way of avoiding heavier tax burdens. That degradation of family life – either marriage or raising a child – by way of tax burdens would “harm” society in the long run.
In a separate statement, Runestad said Michigan must continue to invest in families.
“We can invest in families who live and work in Michigan, so they stay and can afford to raise their family here,” he said. “This child tax credit would provide real tax relief, incentivize hard work, and invest in Michigan families right now when they need it most. I look forward to getting this legislation passed and making a real difference for families in our community.”
The bill was reported 6-0 to the Senate floor with Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) abstaining on the bill. Sen. Betty Alexander (D-Detroit) was not present.
LEO Grilled Over Union Webinar, Pandemic Rulemaking
Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity officials were subjected to questioning Tuesday by a Senate panel over a recent webinar outlining the union forming process as well as efforts to craft possible permanent workplace rules related to the coronavirus pandemic.
They were actions Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), chair of the Senate Appropriations Labor and Economic Opportunity/MEDC Subcommittee, said will likely lead to recommended changes to the department’s budget.
Horn questioned LEO Acting Director Susan Corbin and LEO Deputy Director of Labor Sean Egan at length over the webinar and rulemaking process. No recommendations on the LEO budget were made during the hearing.
The hearing stems from criticism by Republicans over an email announcement by the department last Thursday that it would be holding a webinar on Monday evening with Egan along with Dan Molenda, a field examiner with the National Labor Relations Board.
The original intent of the webinar was to “discuss the step on how to organize a union for private sector employees.” Later Thursday the meeting was amended, with Mr. Molenda said to be participating in a separate future event and Egan instead hosting a discussion on the election process of forming a union.
Drawing further ire from Horn were recent reports that the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proposed possible permanent workplace rules for enactment following the expiration of the emergency rules put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m primarily concerned with the department’s complete failure to communicate with the Legislature,” Horn said of recent department activities. “If we aren’t partners in policymaking that makes it darn hard to be partners in the budget process.”
Egan defended the webinar during questioning, saying it was part of overall educational opportunities provided by the department. Egan said over the past year he has been involved with about 110 webinars dealing with various programs and general information on rules and regulations.
Horn countered by saying that there have been significant impacts on the business community and the state during the coronavirus pandemic.
“In the midst of this pandemic when all resources have been stretched beyond their limits, do you believe that this initiative, this webinar, is the best use of our time and people’s money?” Horn said.
Egan said that, again, the webinar was part of ongoing educational outreach to employers and employees statewide.
“I would keep this in the context of recognizing that this was a half-hour webinar, you know, put together in a few hours over the course of a couple of weeks, so it wasn’t as though we’ve diverted a lot of time and energy into putting this thing together,” Egan said.
When asked if he organized the webinar, Egan said yes.
“We recognized pretty quickly that the name created a lot of ire,” Egan said. “It was an unbiased webinar focused solely on the Public Employment Relations Act. We didn’t lean one way or the other through the webinar … and we just used information that’s been available through our public employee relations manual for the last 20-plus years.”
Egan said the purpose was to point out that the rules exist and that employees can make their own choice on the topic of unionization.
He was also asked how word of the webinar came out. Egan said it was sent to all subscribers to the LEO email list.
Horn also asked about reports that the temporary workplace rules might be made permanent, questioning why the department was, in his view, going it alone. He noted that the pandemic might not be over by October, when the extension of the temporary rules will expire.
“This is the time to come to the Legislature,” Horn said.
Corbin explained that it was unclear what the situation may look like in October.
“We are just doing that in anticipation of the need to perhaps have a … some kind of contingency rule in place,” Corbin said. “It’s not something that happens quickly, so we knew that we needed to start the rulemaking process for a potential COVID rule.”
Horn again questioned why the Legislature was not being brought into the process.
“The only tool you have is to do this on your own is what I’m hearing,” Horn said.
Egan said under the Administrative Procedures Act, the Legislature would have input later through the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.
JCAR, however, has little authority. It cannot block the rules from taking effect.
Further questioning by Horn was over whether the department intends to make the temporary rules permanent. He also asked under what criteria could the temporary rules be withdrawn.
Egan said the department has been closely following federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, noting that changes could be coming to rules based on guidance involving vaccination at some point.
If a safety hazard still exists in the workplace, Egan, MIOSHA would have an obligation and responsibility to protect all workers.
No action on the budget was taken Tuesday, but Horn said he plans to make additional recommendations on the LEO budget soon.