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Whitmer’s top lawyer: Executive orders are ‘the heart’ of Michigan’s coronavirus response

Mark Totten, who is Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's chief legal counsel, explains the process of...
Mark Totten, who is Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's chief legal counsel, explains the process of crafting a coronavirus executive order.(source: State of Michigan)
Published: Sep. 22, 2020 at 1:00 PM EDT
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LANSING, Mich. (WJRT) - Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her top advisers released a video Tuesday explaining the “very deliberate, careful process” used to craft Michigan’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

They defended the administration’s use of executive orders as lawsuits and a statewide petition drive seek to strip the power away from Whitmer and future Michigan governors.

“If these challenges succeed, this is not a matter of just a slight tweak, it’s not trimming at the edges. We’re really talking about removing the heart of what’s been in place to bring us to this place where we are now and what we know has saved thousands of lives," said Mark Totten, who is Whitmer’s chief legal counsel.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, who is Michigan’s chief medical executive, said planning behind the scenes among state health officials for the coronavirus pandemic began in January and February, when the first confirmed cases began spreading around the world and reached the United States.

Their biggest concern early on was airline passengers transmitting COVID-19 around the country. Michigan’s first confirmed coronavirus cases were reported on March 10 involving patients who recently had traveled outside the state.

From there, Whitmer began issuing a series of nearly 200 executive orders aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus by closing and later reopening businesses and schools while imposing a number of restrictions on people.

“We have followed a very deliberate, careful process to make sure we are proceeding in a measured manner – to make sure we are deeply informed by all of the science and the data that we’re aware of the impact our orders will have on the people before they go into effect,” Totten said.

He said the orders generally start with Monday evening meetings to discuss the latest data about coronavirus in Michigan. Whitmer and other top advisers talk about how coronavirus is spreading in various regions around Michigan, along with its effect on different age groups and ethnicities.

They use the latest research to design “careful measures” designed to contain the illness, Totten said.

He said each order starts with a framework of ideas, which are shared with Whitmer’s Executive Office staff and various state departments depending on the scope. Whitmer said the administration also talks with representatives from the business community before she signs the orders.

“We have been working hand in glove with the business community to ensure that we did this in a way that was thoughtful, that was informed by the best science, so that we could re-engage and do so in a way that kept people safe," she said.

Whitmer said COVID-19 remains a new illness and scientists are learning more about it every day. She wants to make sure her orders reflect the best science.

“It’s really an incredible amount of work that goes into each one of these and we debate it and understand it and seek to have perspective from other states as well on a lot of our calls," Whitmer said. "So it’s a pretty incredible amount of work that goes into it and I know everyone’s working so hard to try to get it right.”

She also stays in contact with other governors. Early on, Whitmer said conversed with her counterparts in other states about obtaining personal protection equipment and later collaborated on plans for reopening schools this fall.

“Every single one of us is navigating very similar circumstances," Whitmer said. "I know there’s a tendency to think that this is a unique issue going on in Michigan, and yet having that perspective that the Republican governor of Ohio is doing a lot of the same actions that we are, as is the Democratic governor of Illinois.”

Totten said the administration is “as eager as anyone” for the coronavirus emergency to end. Whitmer and her advisers are looking for a coronavirus vaccine approved for widespread use, an effective COVID-19 treatment and research on immunity before declaring the emergency over in Michigan.

“It is a matter of months,” Totten said. "It is important right now that the protections continue to stay in place because we face a very real enemy.”

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