CEO group to Michigan leaders: Stop suing over COVID-19 restrictions, unite to fight second wave

A coalition of 32 health care, labor, higher education and business executives called on Michigan political leaders Wednesday to cease litigation over public health orders aimed at mitigating spread of the coronavirus amid a resurgence that’s starting to be felt in some hospitals across the state.

The open letter sent Wednesday to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her two counterparts in the Legislature — Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield — urges “collective action” to prevent additional deaths from COVID-19.

Signers of the letter include the top executives at Barton Malow, Dow Inc., DTE Energy Co., General Motors Co., Herman Miller, Lear Corp., Meijer Inc., Rocket Companies Inc., Steelcase, TCF Financial Corp. and the United Auto Workers.

The letter comes nearly three weeks after the Michigan Supreme Court upended Whitmer’s management of the public health crisis, invalidating a law she used to issue broad executive orders without input from the Legislature.

The group of CEOs of major corporations, public universities and hospital systems effectively called for a legal cease fire, asking that public health and workplace safety orders issued by the Whitmer administration be allowed to stand without challenge in court or by legislation.

“On the cusp of a second wave, Michigan needs clearly defined mandatory standards which govern mask usage, workplace practices, public gatherings and certain social activities,” the executives wrote. “The orders recently issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and (Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration) are sufficient to play this role. We should now focus on deploying them with discipline.”

The call for keeping current state orders in place delivered to GOP legislative leaders one day after a group of House Republicans proposed letting counties loosen state-level COVID-19 restrictions when coronavirus cases have declined for at least 14 consecutive days.

The letter framed Michigan’s ongoing battle with the pandemic as critical to the long-term health of the economy and education of 1.5 million school-aged children.

“Many of our children, especially the poorest, are not thriving in a virtual learning world — and many parents are struggling to balance the demands of work and virtual schooling,” the letter says. “But we can only get more of these children the in-person schooling they deserve if we show the discipline needed to quell the surge in coronavirus cases and drive down spread in the months ahead. That is something for which we should all be willing to fight.”

The letter notes coronavirus case data since July shows the fatality rate among individuals over age 80 who contract COVID-19 is 20 percent.

People in their 70s face an 8 percent fatality rate, while younger individuals with pre-existing health conditions such as obesity and diabetes face higher odds of dying if they contract COVID-19, according to the letter.

“The high fatality rates in these groups mean that if the recent surge deeply penetrates their ranks, thousands will die before their time,” the executives wrote. “The job of the rest of us is to rally to protect them by suppressing the spread of the virus. In doing that, all of us will minimize our own risk of other secondary health issues. … That said, we don’t need to resort to language that implies that the coronavirus is an equally grave risk to everyone — it is not.”

The business, health care, education and labor leaders who signed the letter praised the Democratic governor and GOP-controlled Legislture for working together to extend unemployment benefits from 20 weeks to 26 weeks and extending “common-sense liability protections” to employers.

Executives who signed the letter also are core members of the Michigan Economic Recovery Council formed in the spring to give Whitmer guidance on reopening the economy.

The MERC group is co-chaired by DTE Energy Executive Chairman Gerry Anderson and Nancy Schlichting, the retired CEO of Henry Ford Health System. They signed the letter, along with the presidents of Michigan State University, Oakland University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.

Whitmer said Wednesday she’s “grateful” for the group’s letter supporting the current public health and workplace safety orders.

“They’ve helped inform a lot of the decisions I’ve had to make,” Whitmer said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon in Lansing.

In an interview Wednesday with Crain’s, Anderson said further “dissension and divisiveness” over mask-wearing and reducing capacities of public-facing businesses won’t help stave off further spread of the coronavirus and potential deaths.

“It’s fair to say litigating and debating is not productive right now,” Anderson said.

Some Republican lawmakers have resisted a continued statewide mask mandate from MDHHS Director Robert Gordon and MIOSHA’s emergency, six-month workplace safety rules for COVID-19, which requires employers to let office-based employees work from home “to the extent that their work activities can feasibly be completed remotely.”

On Monday, Shirkey slammed the MIOSHA rules and said the state health department orders limiting restaurant and retail store occupancies to 50 percent go “outside of the public health code.”

“That is an example, in my mind, of people making decisions for other people, forcing upon them, and not following with any kind of explanation or logic,” Shirkey said on a Jackson cable television show. “And it comes across as vindictive, it comes across as dictatorial, whatever word you want to use. Instead of helping train people to do the right thing.”

Shirkey said both orders from MDHHS and MIOSHA are “outside” of their legal boundaries.

“It was no different than (Whitmer) stretching outside her lanes and executive orders originally,” he said. “They keep pressing the limits.”

Shirkey said Monday that he believes mask-wearing is not as effective as social distancing and hand-washing.

The Senate majority leader’s resistance comes as coronavirus cases in his home county have lead to a rise in hospitalizations at Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson, where Shirkey once chaired the board.

As of Tuesday night, Henry Ford Health System had 150 COVID-19 patients across its system, 45 of whom were hospitalized in the Jackson hospital, HFHS CEO Wright Lassiter III said Wednesday.

Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Clinton Township has the most COVID-19 patients within the system, with 64 as of Tuesday evening, meaning 73 percent of the system’s patients are in the Macomb and Jackson county hospitals, Lassiter said.

“It’s starting to put strain and pressure on those facilities,” Lassiter said in an interivew.

On Wednesday, statewide hospitalizations for COVID-positive patients statewide had risen to 987, a 26 percent increase from a week ago. The majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations are outside of Southeast Michigan, rising 32 percent over the past seven days, a Crain’s analysis shows.

Lassiter, who also signed the letter to the state’s political leaders, also addressed Shirkey’s call for “a bit of herd immunity,” allowing letting the coronavirus spread uncontrolled to build up immunity across the state’s population of 10 million people. Public health experts have estimated this strategy would lead to another 30,000 deaths; at least 7,053 Michigan residents have died of COVID-19 since mid-March.

“There is scientific consensus that herd immunity is not an effective strategy for the virus,” Lassister told Crain’s. “… The virulence of this virus is such that that is not a prudent approach.”

Lassiter added: “With all due respect to any elected officials who I presume believe they’re trying to do the right thing on behalf of their constituency, herd immunity is not an effective strategy and it should not be preferred over the public health measures that have been in put in place in the state of Michigan over the last several months.”

At Wednesday’s news conference, Whitmer called a herd immunity strategy a “dangerous idea” and a “philosophy that is inhumane.”

“A much better alternative to herd immunity would be to control the spread of the coronavirus,” the governor said.