Gretchen Whitmer Shuts Michigan Restaurants, Bars in Stirring Reminder That Democrats Can Actually Do Things

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaking into a microphone at a lectern.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a campaign rally in Detroit on Oct. 25. Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

COVID-19 infections are higher than they’ve ever been in the United States, but the top priority for Democrats in Congress seems to be blaming the party’s surprise election losses on activists who came up with the phrase “defund the police.” For the most part, the Democratic governors who pursued lifesaving shutdowns and public information campaigns in the spring and early summer have given up this time around, ceding political momentum to anti-mask extremists and Republican senators who refuse to approve state and local bailout funding. Erstwhile liberal icon and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s only significant response to the recent spike in cases has been to instruct restaurants and bars to close … at 10 p.m.

Fortunately, a hero in the heartland has found the courage to stand athwart history shouting that it is insane to keep spaces for indoor socializing open during a viral pandemic that is spread mostly by people socializing indoors. That hero is Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who, on Sunday, announced that she is ordering the closure, until Dec. 8, of her state’s restaurants and bars, movie theaters, casinos, and venues for group fitness classes. In-person classes for students in ninth grade and above will also be halted. (Outdoor dining and drinking will be allowed; hair salons, gyms where patrons work out individually, and retail stores can remain open. With Thanksgiving a week-plus away, the order also instructs residents not to gather indoors in groups that include more than 10 people or more than two households, though there do not appear to be plans to enforce that rule aggressively.)

Michigan, which is currently reporting around 7,000 new COVID infections a day, was also one of the states that locked down most dramatically this spring, and was until recently able to prevent widespread outbreaks of the sort seen in other states. Whitmer’s restrictions did trigger a backlash among far-right groups, and in October, federal authorities arrested 13 men for planning to kidnap and potentially murder her.

Politics is often a game of letting someone else to be the first one to see whether something works, so the positive initial response that Whitmer’s order has gotten from public health experts may create a virtuous chain of dominoes among other Democratic governors. The Republican governors in the most hard-hit states, like South Dakota and Iowa, are likely lost causes; South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem in particular seems eager to raise her national profile by proudly refusing to take any virus-related precautions at all, including wearing a mask or encouraging others to do so. It is, frankly, real dumb.

Whitmer’s order will cause financial problems for workers, businesses, and the state of Michigan itself. That’s not ideal, but perhaps it will put the imperative to pass another COVID stimulus/relief bill back in the news cycle; negotiations on such a measure in Washington have been stalled since before the election because of Republican senators’ insistence on not spending more than $500 million even though the Trump White House has offered to go as high as $1.8 trillion in an effort to make a deal with House Democrats.

In this way, the national interest also dovetails with Democrats’ political needs: The first stimulus bill was very popular, and an October New York Times/Siena College poll found that more than 70 percent of the public would support an addition $2 trillion spending package. While elections are enigmatic events whose outcomes are for the most part determined by trickster gods and witchcraft, turning the Jan. 5 Georgia runoffs that will determine control of the Senate into a referendum on a stimulus would be, from an empirical perspective, Democrats’ best possible strategy to win them. “I will vote for COVID relief,” to the extent anything in politics is a sure thing, is, at the moment, a sure thing. (I think.)

From the long-term perspective, the debate over what the Democratic Party should stand for is a tricky one. In the short term, it has a great opportunity to simply be the party that, like Gretchen Whitmer, will do the things that obviously need to be done.