Nowhere in America is the coronavirus pandemic more out of control than in Michigan.
Outbreaks are ripping through workplaces, restaurants, churches and family weddings. Hospitals are overwhelmed with patients. Officials are reporting more than 7,000 new infections each day, a sevenfold increase from late February. And Michigan is home to nine of the 10 metro areas with the country’s highest recent case rates.
During previous surges in Michigan, a resolute Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down businesses and schools as she saw fit — over the din of both praise and protests. But this time, Ms. Whitmer has stopped far short of the sweeping shutdowns that made her a lightning rod.
“Policy change alone won’t change the tide,” Ms. Whitmer said on Friday, as she asked — but did not order — that the public take a two-week break from indoor dining, in-person high school and youth sports. “We need everyone to step up and to take personal responsibility here.”
It is a rare moment in the pandemic: a high-profile Democratic governor bucking the pleas of doctors and epidemiologists in her state and instead asking for voluntary actions from the public to control the virus’s spread. Restaurants and bars remain open at a reduced capacity, Detroit Tigers fans are back at the stadium and most schools have welcomed students into the classroom.
Ms. Whitmer’s new position reflects the shifting politics of the pandemic, shaped more by growing public impatience with restrictions and the hope offered by vaccines than by any reassessment among public health authorities of how best to contain the virus.
Her approach, calling for individual responsibility over statewide restrictions, might have been lifted from the playbook of a Republican elected official, and on Friday she seemed to try to shift attention to the Biden administration for turning down her request to send extra vaccine doses to her beleaguered state.
That approach prompted an unexpected uttering of approval from Republicans in Michigan, who control the State Legislature and until now have fought Ms. Whitmer’s decisions at every turn.
State Representative Beau LaFave, a Republican from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, said that patience for the governor’s rules had evaporated long ago in his district and that Ms. Whitmer was correct to not impose additional restrictions, even as reports of new cases approached their late-fall peak and deaths continued to increase.
“She should have been doing that this whole time,” Mr. LaFave said, “allowing individuals to do risk assessments on their own health.”
Even many Democrats in Michigan seem to concur that the time for shutting things down might have passed.
Mayor Sheldon Neeley of Flint said he was worried about the steep rise in new cases but for now did not favor sweeping restrictions from Ms. Whitmer. Mr. Neeley, a Democrat, issued a strict curfew for his own city earlier in the pandemic, but said he doubted whether such measures would have the same impact now.
“Those things were effective,” he said. “I think they would be less effective if you tried to use the same tools and tactics as you did once before.”
There is also re-election looming in the background. Michigan is a closely divided state, Ms. Whitmer’s office will be on the ballot next year and Republicans sense an opportunity.
“This is the biggest thing in 100 years,” Jack O’Malley, a Republican member of the Michigan House, said of the pandemic. “I would say it’s got to be 80 percent of why somebody’s going to vote or not vote for her.”
Still, a small but growing number of doctors and public health officials are calling on Ms. Whitmer to take much more aggressive action as cases worsen by the day.
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