Business leaders urge governor to reopen the economy

They point to neighboring states like Ohio and Indiana as examples where relaxed rules have worked.

More than 140 West Michigan business leaders have signed a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, offering their perspective on how and how quickly Michigan can start getting back to work.

The letter expressed support and encouragement for Whitmer’s work with other Midwest governors to reopen the regional economy while at the same time encouraging her to take stronger measures to reopen Michigan.

“We want to emphasize a few points,” the letter read. “First, we care about our workers. They are our friends and neighbors. We know their families and we support their aspirations. Their well-being is very important to us. Together, we share a commitment to providing world-class products and services. As a community of people joined together by a common mission, we are compelled to care about each other’s health, safety, and welfare.”

But Michigan workers still need to work, the letter continued. In addition to a paycheck, work gives people a sense of identity, purpose and pride. When the ability to work is taken away, even in the name of protecting health, some level of harm is inflicted, leaders argued.

“You bear the difficult responsibility of making decisions for our State that require balancing the harm that COVID-19 will cause to our communities against the harms associated with depriving people of their jobs and livelihood,” the letter continued. “These decisions will reverberate in the lives of Michigan workers and their families for years to come. These are miserable choices that must be made in light of many competing interests.”

Business leaders across various sectors of Michigan’s economy, including health care, construction, real estate and finance co-signed the letter to Whitmer.

Dr. Randall Baker, a physician with Grand Health Partners, and one of the signers of the letter, said the biggest strain for health care he had seen in the wake of COVID-19 was a significant drop in patients seeking care for other illnesses for fear of contracting the virus.

“People may have appendicitis, and they don’t come in until it ruptures,” Baker said. “We’re starting to see the cure is having a toxic side to it. It’s not just a debate of lives vs. the economy, this lockdown is impacting people’s lives as well.”

Additionally, the state’s shelter-in-place order is having an increased negative impact on overall mental health, leading to a spike in issues like suicide attempts, Baker said.

Grand Health Partners has increased its telemedicine services in the wake of Whitmer’s executive order, although that comes with limitations, Baker said. About 95% of Grand Health’s practice is preventive or elective procedures, and the COVID-19 crisis has caused the organization to minimize 10-to-20% of what it can do for patients.

Baker added Grand Health implemented preventive measures prior to Whitmer’s order, including optimization of social distancing, wearing proper PPE and screening patients prior to examination.

As Michigan opens back up, the group will continue to practice these measures, he said.

Baker said, through the letter, he hopes Whitmer understands Michigan needs to open up soon and in a strategic fashion that takes into account the various degrees of contagion risk by area.

“First thing is we cannot treat all cases the same. In Kent County we have not overwhelmed our resources,” Baker said. “We need to take that into account. If we have a lower risk area, those are safer to open up quicker. My recommendation to the governor is we need to start opening Michigan up, and we need to do it in a wise and prudent fashion, but the (longer) we wait the more unintended consequences there are going to be.”

The Business Journal previously reported construction continues to occupy a big space in the argument over which businesses should be deemed essential or not. Jeff VanderLaan, CEO of Kent Companies, who also co-signed the letter, said his company has a unique perspective because it operates in multiple states with varying shelter-in-place orders.

“Michigan is the only state that doesn’t allow construction except in scenarios where the work is described as essential,” VanderLaan said. “It’s in very limited circumstances.”

Whitmer’s order deemed housing construction nonessential except in the event that site work is necessary to eliminate safety hazards, according to an earlier Business Journal report.

VanderLaan said safety always has been a primary concern in construction, and the industry is uniquely positioned to deal with the COVID situation. The nature of site work is isolated already. Job meetings have moved to virtual. And Kent Companies is encouraging and maintaining social distancing during lunch and break times.

“I want people to understand we’re not putting anybody at undue risk,” VanderLaan said. “I think the shift needs to be to finding where we can operate safely and not safely. I don’t think a tattoo parlor can open safely, but landscaping, residential, commercial construction — those should be allowed to operate safely.”

VanderLaan pointed to Ohio as an example of a state that took what he called a pragmatic and reasonable approach to safety. The state allows businesses that are capable of keeping workers safe to continue to operate.

“Because of our experience in multiple states, the dichotomy and confusion of what we can do in Michigan is far more constraining than what we’re seeing in every other location across the country,” VanderLaan said. “We can do everything in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, but we can’t do those things here in Michigan.”

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