LANSING, Mich. – The Republican-led Michigan Legislature refused Thursday to extend the state's coronavirus emergency declaration and voted to authorize a lawsuit challenging Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's authority and actions to combat the pandemic.
The governor, unfazed, responded with orders stating under one law that an emergency still exists, while declaring a new 28-day state of emergency under another law.
The declarations are important because they are the foundation for Whitmer’s stay-at-home measure, which will remain in effect through May 15, and other directives aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. The virus that causes COVID-19 has infected more than 41,000 Michigan residents and contributed to the deaths of 3,789, many in the Detroit area.
Whitmer accused GOP lawmakers of “putting their heads in the sand and putting more lives and livelihoods at risk. I’m not going to let that happen.”
The legislative pushback came as hundreds of conservative activists, including some who were openly carrying assault rifles, returned to the Capitol to denounce her stay-home order.
Whitmer wanted legislators to extend the emergency before it was to expire late Thursday. But at the same time, she believes she has other powers to respond to the crisis and does not need a legislatively-approved extension — which Republicans dispute and appeared poised to challenge in court.
The virus and the steps taken to curb it, including the closure of nonessential businesses, have had a devastating effect on the economy. In her new emergency orders, Whitmer said cases are doubling every six days or faster in some counties in western and northern Michigan.
The House and Senate voted along party lines for a bill, which Whitmer will vet, that would temporarily codify many of her directives but not her stay-home order.
Republicans accused Whitmer of ignoring their input.
“We can no longer allow one person to make decisions for 10 million people,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield, of Levering, said the death toll is “terrible,” but other lives have been “negatively impacted unnecessarily because of how we have handled this pandemic. We believe we you can prioritize public health yet be reasonable in your approach to fighting COVID."
Democrats opposed the legislation as an unconstitutional “political stunt” and called the likely legal action a wasteful expense amid plummeting tax revenues.
“We must ensure that our state can respond quickly and decisively to a situation that changes day by day,” said state Rep. Tyrone Carter, a Detroit Democrat who recovered from COVID-19. “That means ensuring that our governor has the emergency powers necessary to lead us in this fight.”
Late Thursday, Whitmer extended the closure of bars, casinos and other public places through May 28. She also continued a ban on dine-in service at restaurants.
Earlier at the Capitol, speakers took turns addressing a crowd on the lawn. Drivers leaned on their horns as they traveled past, a repeat of what occurred April 15 but not close to the thousands who participated in vehicles at that time, which paralyzed traffic for miles.
Protesters' placards read, “Shut down the lockdown," “No work no freedom," and “Tyrants get the rope.” Some people wore the “Don't Tread On Me” flag as a cape. Others chanted, “Lock her up,” in reference to the governor. Some wore President Donald Trump's “Make America Great Again” hats or carried signs supporting him.
“The virus is here. It’s going to be here. ... It’s time to let people go back to work. That’s all there is to it,” said Joni George, of Flushing.
Some angry protesters — many without face coverings — entered the Capitol and demanded to be let onto the House floor, which is not allowed. The gallery was closed to the public to allow room for representatives and reporters to spread apart. Some demonstrators in the Senate gallery were openly carrying guns, which is legal in the statehouse. One senator said some armed men shouted at her, and some senators wore bulletproof vests for protection.
Shanon Banner, a state police spokeswoman, estimated there were 400 to 700 protesters and said they were “peaceful” overall. People who did not wear masks or distance themselves were not issued tickets. One demonstrator was arrested for assaulting another protester.
Whitmer, whom the public has supported in polling, on Wednesday rejected Senate Republicans' proposal for a pair of one-week extensions of the emergency in exchange for giving legislators a say in any future stay-at-home restrictions.
Republicans want her to allow elective medical and dental procedures again and certainty on the date she plans to reopen the economy on a regional basis. Meanwhile, the governor has allowed some businesses, such as lawn-care companies and greenhouses, to resume operating.
Commercial and residential construction will resume next week.
Householder reported from Lansing. AP writer Ed White in Detroit contributed to this report.