LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday refused to discuss the circumstances surrounding the abrupt departure of Michigan’s health director during the coronavirus pandemic, including whether she asked for his resignation.
The Democratic governor also declined to set a date for the return of youth contact sports, despite growing pressure after her administration extended the ban through Feb. 21, three months after it began.
Robert Gordon, who issued COVID-19 restrictions after Whitmer’s powers were upended by an October court ruling, resigned Friday as director of the state Department of Health and Human Services after two years on the job. The governor named Elizabeth Hertel to succeed him, calling her “another incredibly qualified person” at the department.
“It’s been a grueling couple of years, and changes in administrations happen,” the governor said during a news conference in which she would not say, in response to multiple questions, if she had sought Gordon’s exit. “I wish Robert Gordon the very best. I truly do. I’m incredibly grateful for the hard work and the way that he showed up every single day over these last two years.”
The state has announced that restaurants and bars can resume dine-in service, starting Feb. 1, after a significant drop in virus cases and hospitalizations. But youth contact sports, including winter high school seasons in basketball, hockey, wrestling and competitive cheer, remain off-limits.
Whitmer, who has strongly recommended that schools offer in-person instruction by March 1, pointed to the emergence of a more contagious virus variant in Washtenaw and Wayne counties — which have 17 confirmed cases of the variant first identified in England — as cause for concern.
“I understand the concern that parents and athletes have and their desire to reengage. … Our job is to try to curtail the spread of this new variant” she said. “We’ve got to not let our guard down. … It’s important that we stay very focused on where the numbers are before we take additional steps.”
On Monday, a law and lobbying firm representing a group of student-athletes, parents, coaches and school administrators wrote to Hertel urging her to issue an order letting contact sports begin no later than Feb. 21. The letter says 99.8% of tests given to athletes, coaches and staff recently were negative.
The testing of about 5,300 people was conducted in a pilot program to finish the state football, volleyball, and girls swimming and diving tournaments this month. Forty-seven states have given a start date for competition for all sports, according to the letter.
The group said the lack of team sports hurts students’ education, adding that athletes are no longer being recruited by colleges and those with means can travel to neighboring states to compete.
Separately, Detroit school district superintendent Nikolai Vitti wrote a letter encouraging Whitmer to allow winter contact sports and to give clarity about why the season has been suspended and what needs to happen for it to start. About 60,000 athletes are involved in winter contact sports, according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association.
“As I believe you know, the opposition, despair and anger to the continuing suspension of winter ‘contact’ sports is rapidly growing in the city and across the state,” Vitti wrote. “Please do not let this frustration reach the level of a lawsuit against you and state.”
Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the state health department, said sports that require closeness between players make it more difficult to prevent disease transmission even with masks and other mitigation measures in place.
“These risks are even greater for indoor contact sports where there is not natural ventilation to mitigate the close proximity of participants,” she said, adding that teams may be able to decrease risk with robust public health measures “but risk remains elevated.”