“We’re seeing it’s safe to take this step at this time,” Whitmer said during a briefing Monday.
Whitmer’s restrictions, some of the nation’s most extensive, have prompted lawsuits from Republican opponents and drawn hundreds of demonstrators to the statehouse in Lansing, some of them armed.
The state’s daily number of new coronavirus cases has been gradually declining since early April, and many counties in the northern part of the state have had no confirmed deaths since the pandemic started. But state officials have cautioned that Michigan’s rural areas could be quickly overwhelmed by outbreaks because of a dearth of hospital beds.
John Murphy, mayor of the lakeside community of Petoskey, endorsed the governor’s move. The town relies heavily on out-of-town visitors and part-time residents, who normally would begin filling bars and shops this time of year.
The city is in Emmet County, population 33,300, which has had 21 confirmed coronavirus cases and two deaths.
“I think it’s time to start taking a chance of moving forward while at the same time looking at the numbers, the data, to ensure we are still on track,” Murphy said.
But the Republican speaker of Michigan’s House, Lee Chatfield, said Whitmer’s order did not go far enough.
“This is a positive step that we’ve been requesting for over a month now, but the vast majority of Michigan is still held captive in the nation’s worst lockdown,” Chatfield tweeted.
Since March, Michigan residents have been under restrictions that drastically limited or shut down businesses as the state, particularly hard-hit metro Detroit, grappled with one of the highest coronavirus infection and death rates in the country. Michigan has reported nearly 4,900 deaths statewide from covid-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes, with the vast majority in the metro Detroit area.
Whitmer said in Monday’s order that “the strain on our health care system has begun to relent,” enabling her to safely ease restrictions outside the state’s hot spots.
The stay-at-home order affecting the rest of the state remains in effect until May 28 unless decreases in the rate of new cases and deaths and a scaling up in testing indicates it is safe to revise them earlier, Whitmer said.
Activists aligned with the anti-vaccination movement, supporters of President Trump and militia members have been visible opponents of Whitmer’s rules, some appearing outside of the statehouse with paramilitary gear and carrying long guns. Some have also brought Confederate flag and Nazi imagery, comparing the governor to Adolf Hitler.
A protest in April, in which hundreds of demonstrators, many of them armed, streamed into the statehouse, has led some lawmakers to push for a ban on firearms in the Capitol.
Despite the visibility of protesters — and the controversy they have stirred — a Washington Post-Ipsos poll released last week showed that 72 percent of Michiganders approve of Whitmer’s handling of the outbreak, and 25 percent disapprove.
Still, hours after Whitmer announced the relaxation of restrictions, hundreds gathered at a park in Grand Rapids to condemn the remaining rules, calling for the governor to be impeached and chanting, “Lock her up!” Along with speakers, including state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R), armed militia members stood guard on the stage.
Jakki Hanna, a 41-year-old graphic designer from Sparta, arrived wearing a mask embroidered with “Trump 2020.” She said she believes the governor should lift restrictions statewide, leaving it up to individuals and businesses to decide how to protect themselves.
“I just don’t want the government to overreach,” Hanna said.
Protester Holly Shashaguay, 48, came from a small town near Holland, Mich., wearing a bedazzled baseball hat with an American flag and an elephant pin. While she viewed Whitmer’s loosening of restrictions to be a good step, she criticized the restrictions that remained in place in some counties with no confirmed coronavirus cases.
“Number one, it’s unconstitutional,” she said. “Number two . . . it doesn’t even make any sense at all.”
She said she’s skeptical of public health officials who warn of the danger of the virus, calling the restrictions a politically motivated effort by Democrats to make Trump look bad in an election year.
“I personally believe that if this weren’t an election year, the virus wouldn’t have even closed anything down,” she said.