By PAUL NATINSKY
In early February 2020, the news stories and warnings began to appear about a virus in China emerging from a “wet market” in a city of 11 million whose name I’d never heard. My first thought was here we go again. Just like MERS or SARS—and seemingly every winter’s inevitable exaggerated blizzard forecast—I figured it was another alarmist health scare that would never reach American shores.
In mid-March, it became clear that this time it was real—the “coronavirus” had arrived, was spreading fast and was going to wreak havoc in our lives. Even at first and amid the confusion of mixed messages and unclear science, I suspected this disease was going to infect many and have long-term consequences.
As our school district struggled along with neighboring districts about whether to close schools, I applauded Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stepping up and taking the heat off of local school boards about whether or not to shut down. The locals were under pressure keep schools open, in no small part so that parents could go to work and hot meals continued for kids who needed them.
I saw the immediate wisdom of shutting down offices, restaurants, gyms, barbers—any business that created a virus-spreading risk. I saw the wisdom in creating a unified, statewide policy. I was patient. Deep down, I knew school was not going to reopen that year and that we were unlikely to see the inside of restaurants, bars and movie theaters for a while. The public health and political liability was too high. Who wants to be responsible for a reopening among all of the uncertainty?
Still, I thought it would take a few months for the pandemic to run its course and countermeasures to clean up in its wake. I never imagined an entire school year would go down the drain, along with the restaurant industry and a host of service industries. But here we are.
I also never anticipated that precautions against the virus would be thoroughly politicized. That mask wearing would become a divisive issue. That resisting or defying public health measures would become a political statement.
However, from the very beginning—and despite the Trump administration’s denial and minimization posture—there seemed to be a curious lack of openness in Michigan about the decision process regarding restrictions (It was never clear to me why it was high-risk for someone to landscape my yard and I still don’t understand science behind the curfew regarding restaurants).
Subsequent events, ultimately leading up to the incursion at the Capitol, would triage the entire coronavirus pandemic into the increasingly polarizing political space. At some point, it became impossible to consider the pandemic apart from the political chasm.
As the political situation devolved over the summer and into the fall, it masked a woeful lack of openness from the Whitmer administration that has now become a major issue apart from the pandemic.
The firing of MDHHS Director Robert Gordon and subsequent non-disclosure agreement and six-figure payout fit neatly into that narrative.
Conversations with sources in the state capital haven’t illuminated the situation one bit. The stakeholders most poignantly affected have not received adequate explanations concerning the methodology of the restrictions.
The shenanigans regarding the 1945 and 1976 emergency powers acts have only added fuel to the fire. Despite the leadership change at MDHHS—and the fact that that Elizabeth Hertel is well regarded by a wide range of public officials on both sides of the aisle—it does not seem that fundamental change in the Whitmer openness and disclosure policy is afoot.
It can only be hoped that Year Two of the pandemic features a more cooperative and rational approach to restrictions, reopening and other pandemic-related issues.
However, the highly partisan battle over the latest federal COVID relief measure does not bode well for a better process, particularly as the Legislature and the governor maneuver to figure out how to manage the federal funds.
In the meantime, families, students and certain businesses continue to seek a fix on a moving and shrouded target. We must find a way bring science, common sense and openness to pandemic policy, or risk continued hardship and uncertainty.