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Gov faces critical time as virus tensions high

Do you, like me, believe we have reached a critical stage dealing with the coronavirus in Michigan?

Everywhere I turn right now, I see tensions running high, people’s nerves frayed, and disappointment and discouragement much more prevalent in discussions and attitudes.

While, for the most part, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has maintained a pretty solid approval rating throughout her past 10 months dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, I believe how she handles the next few weeks — especially the reopening of bars and restaurants — will be especially important for her.

Whitmer announced on Friday that bars and restaurants can reopen on Feb. 1, with limited seating, no congregations such as packed dance floors, a mandatory 10 p.m. closing time, and a requirement to collect contact information for the patrons to help with contact tracing should someone end up infected.

The governor also said officials will closely monitor infections over the next few weeks, and restrictions could be reinstated if the data takes a wrong turn.

Restaurants statewide celebrated the news, but said they should have been allowed to open long ago, because they know how to do so safely.

People, like some of those in Presque Isle County, are tired of dealing with COVID-19. They are tired of leading life looking over their shoulder for the virus. And they are frustrated by lost economic opportunities.

In a region that in the past has struggled with double-digit unemployment, the last thing they need right now is a return to those days, because the region’s economy has ground to a snail’s pace during this pandemic.

Last week, Presque Isle County commissioners discussed the impact state regulations were having on regional businesses, like Commissioner Carl Altman’s Night Hawk Inn in Hawks. Altman complained regulations banning indoor service was hurting businesses such as his, and suggested county officials might want to follow the lead of Baraga County officials, who recently said they would no longer enforce the state regulations on their businesses.

Altman said that, in conversations he has had with county residents, sentiment is 10-to-1 in favor of allowing businesses to open back up.

Commissioner John Chappa, while sympathetic, expressed concern about any anti-state position. He pointed out such a stand would only hurt, as businesses could be fined, or, worse, lose liquor licenses by protesting.

Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association President and CEO Justin Winslow said on Friday that Whitmer should “move aggressively towards a more comprehensive reintegration strategy, which includes prioritizing vaccination for the broader hospitality industry and establishing clear metrics for phased reopening to 100% capacity of indoor dining.”

State Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Stamas, R-Midland, carries a lot of clout when he speaks. As Senate Appropriations chair, no state government spending occurs without his stamp of approval. While the Senate majority leader gets all the press, the appropriations chair literally controls all the purse strings, and thus many would argue the true power in the Senate rests with him.

Things are so tense that, before Whitmer’s Friday announcement, Stamas said that, until the governor ends the shutdowns, he believed the Legislature should should hold up any appointments she routinely makes each month.

“As long as the governor rejects the importance of thousands of restaurants and small businesses she continues to shut down, then we should reject her appointments,” Stamas said. “My goal with this proposal is to bring the governor to the table on COVID-19 issues and understand that the Legislature plays an important role in our representative government.”

We are fast approaching the 12-month mark of dealing with coronavirus-related concerns. Thankfully, with things like a vaccine, hope is on the horizon. Still, most of us seem to be growing weary of this battle week in and week out.

Whitmer and state health department officials are at a critical juncture as they strive to balance economic health against personal health protections.

Hopefully, the weeks after restaurants reopen will bring good news that gives us all cause for more optimism.

Bill Speer can be reached at 989-354-3111, ext. 311, or bspeer@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @billspeer13.

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