LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on April 9 extended the state-wide stay-at-home order through April 30, barring non-essential business and travel outside the home. Additional restrictions intended to limit the spread of the virus have been added.
Grocery stores and other retailers that sell food, medicine and other essentials are still allowed to remain open, but occupancy restrictions the closure of what have been deemed non-essential areas such as sections dedicated to carpeting, flooring, furniture, garden centers, plant nurseries or paint have been added.
“If you’re not buying food or medicine or other essential items, you should not be going to the store,” Whitmer said of her decision during an April 9 news conference.
Large stores must limit the number of people in the store at one time to no more than 4 customers for every 1,000 square feet of customer floor space. Small stores must limit capacity to 25 percent of the total occupancy limits, including employees, under fire codes. If there are lines, stores will be required to establish lines with markings to ensure 6 feet of social distancing while customers wait to enter the store.
The new order also prohibits second-homeowners from traveling from their main home to their other property. And effective Saturday morning, April 11, travel to other residences is prohibited except for purposes such as caring for a relative, an elderly friend, or a pet, attending a funeral with no more than 10 people, or complying with a court order related to child custody.
According to an April 9 release from Berrien County Officials and Spectrum Health Lakeland, all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring among persons not part of a single household are prohibited under the new executive order. The order also states that after April 10, 2020 travel between two residences is not permitted.
Lawmakers, businesses push back against expanded executive order
Many Southwest Michigan residents are looking wistfully across the state line at Indiana, where landscapers continue to mow lawns and florist shops take orders over the phone, with customers picking them up at the curb.
Both of these activities, plus others, are temporarily banned in Michigan due to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home executive order that was recently extended to the end of April, to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
State Rep. Brad Paquette, R-Niles, said he supports the governor’s passion to save lives, but disagrees with how far she has gone with her executive orders.
“I have a lot of respect for her leadership and her courage. However, my job is to make sure that we’re able to support her and make sure that people are able to stay safe while also continuing on in their livelihoods if they are able to do so safely,” he said.
He said many Michigan residents have shared with him their stories about how their businesses are being devastated even though they could continue working while maintaining social distance.
“I’ve literally been on the phone two weeks straight with people who are simply losing their livelihoods and the nest eggs that they have in their business,” Paquette said. “And they’re watching folks in Indiana who are able to still work and folks who are working (in Michigan) on federal contracts still be able to work.”
Lowe’s in Benton Township was restricted last weekend by the Benton Township police for selling items out of its garden center because that is not deemed as essential. Paquette said Michigan State Police troopers were recently patrolling the Rural King parking lot in Niles, making sure customers were only allowed to buy essential materials.
He said Michigan is starting to feel like a police state.
“When our government does make these far reaching one-size-fits-all applications, it hurts a lot of people that don’t need to be hurt,” he said.
Paquette said it’s not a case of saving lives versus staying in business. It’s a case of having common sense and allowing businesses that can stay open safely do so.
When Whitmer extended the stay-home order on April 9, she also expanded it.
Under the new order, Whitmer said big box stores like Walmart will have to close portions of the store that are dedicated to carpeting, paint and furniture, because those items are not essential.
“If you’re not buying food or medicine or other essential items, you should not be going to the store,” Whitmer said.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has also issued a stay-athome order, which is set to expire April 20.
His press secretary, Rachel Hoffmeyer, confirmed that under his order, stores like Lowe’s are still allowed to sell garden supplies, and big box stores aren’t being required to rope off portions of the store not considered essential.
In addition, she confirmed that contractors are allowed to work on private homes, golf courses are open and nonessential businesses like greenhouses can take orders over the phone or online and deliver them to the customer at the curb, like restaurants are allowed to do.
Holcomb added that while businesses are allowed to operate, they must do so safely by complying with social distance regulations and by regularly sanitizing commonly touched areas.
The updated March 28 federal guidelines state that essential workers include “workers such as plumbers, electricians, exterminators, builders, contractors, HVAC Technicians, landscapers, and other service providers who provide services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences, businesses and buildings such as hospitals, senior living facilities, any temporary construction required to support COVID-19 response.”
Whitmer’s new stay-athome executive order states that its list of essential workers is still based on the original March 19 federal guidelines.
“This order does not adopt any subsequent guidance document released by this same agency,” the order states.
State Rep. Pauline Wendzel, R-Coloma, said in a news release that it is wrong for Whitmer to ignore the updated federal guidelines.
“The fact that the governor refuses to adapt to expert recommendations from the Department of Homeland Security as so many of her colleagues have done is troubling and isn’t supported by data,” Wendzel said. “This additional clamp-down is the last thing we need right now and hurts not only business owners, but every single one of our friends and neighbors.”
She said that Michigan owners who can run their businesses while maintaining social distancing guidelines should be allowed to do so.
State Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, echoed Paquette’s and Wendzel’s opposition to Michigan’s essential worker order being so limited.
“I have heard from numerous businesses from our district lamenting the fact that, while under similar circumstances, their competitors in Indiana are open for business while they are ordered closed,” said LaSata in a news release. “Our business owners and job providers are more than capable of operating safely – they have so far trusted the government during this crisis and it is time the government trusted them.”
LaSata said that the state senate recently announced a bipartisan “Safe Behavior for Safe Workplaces” work group to developing a plan to reopen the economy, with the deadline of April 17 to deliver its recommendations to Whitmer.
“I am confident that the new Safe Behavior for Safe Workplaces work group will develop sound recommendations that can help get our state back to work quickly and safely,” LaSata said. “I will continue to share feedback from my discussions with Southwest Michigan businesses with the workgroup as they conduct their thorough and expeditious work.”
Lawn care, landscaping companies left hanging
Landscaping crews experienced one of the shortest winters in recent memory and were prepared to hit the ground running for peak season, starting around mid-March.
But then after only a week into their seasonal work period, the state issued its stay-at-home executive order in an effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration classified lawn care and landscaping work as non-essential, meaning the companies are not allowed to operate while the order is in effect.
Now landscapers and supporters are urging legislators and the governor to reverse the decision, in an effort to get back to work.
Anna Brooks, who runs Arcadia Gardens in Stevensville along with her husband, said the timing couldn’t have been worse.
“Our golden rule of starting back is on or around March 15,” Brooks said. “A good number of (landscaping companies) are coming off a dry snow season with an early spring. We all are coming off of it short on funds.”
Arcadia Gardens doesn’t handle lawn mowing or snow plowing. The company focuses on design builds for commercial properties and residential households.
Their entire workforce has been laid off since mid-December, a period in which a lot of the Arcadia’s design work is done. When spring arrives, crew members come back and complete lawn maintenance.
Brooks said several frustrated landscapers now out of work say they are certain they could do their jobs outdoors while still following social distance guidelines.
“What is frustrating is we are very concerned about the health of our community, our clients and our employees,” she said. “That being said, we are relatively low risk. We are able to send out crews one to two people per vehicle.”
In an effort to corral support, Brooks created a private Facebook group for local lawn care and landscapers to talk about what’s happening.
“We had a week and a half across the state where we worked,” Brooks said. “It was a grey area until (Whitmer) came out and named us as non-essential.”
Other than her belief that landscapers can properly distance themselves while on the job, Brooks said getting back to work is a time-sensitive matter.
“This is an early spring. We have lawns that need to be mowed and fertilized. Pest control needs to go down,” Brooks said. “The lawn care crews are scrambling because there is fertilizer that needs to go down in the next few weeks. We have to get the leaves up because they are a fire hazards and a breeding ground for mosquitos.”
A good portion of landscaping companies plow snow over the winter months in order to keep a revenue stream going during the offseason.
Travis Hanko, owner in Precision Cutz in Coloma, said plowing snow makes up about 20 percent of his company revenue.
With so little snow this winter, Hanko was prepared for spring. When the executive order was first handed down, Hanko said he and his crew continued to work.
Two weeks ago he was shut down by police while on a job.
“We had been working for a couple weeks, doing cleanups,” Hanko said. “When we were stopped, we were fertilizing at the time. There were only two of us out. The cop was very nice about it and reminded us of (the executive order).”
Arcadia Gardens isn’t out on jobs, but workers are doing any kind of upkeep they are legally allowed to do under the executive order.
“We are permitted under guidance from the Michigan Nursery Landscaping Association to have essential employees who do the bare minimum,” Brooks said. “That means paying the bills and keeping the business afloat. We have a skeleton office crew.”
The onsite nursery requires upkeep and Arcadia is still permitted to keep its contract with the Berrien County Drain Commission.
“We had to lay off all of our employees, but we did need to bring back three employees to fulfill the contract,” Brooks said. That’s a stark contrast to the usual 33-member workforce at Arcadia.
Michael Villwock has been frequently communicating with several state lawmakers in search of some kind of help.
As the owner of Villwock’s Outdoor Living, he runs a gardening center and retail outfit in Berrien Springs. He said he reaches out to his local legislators on a daily basis.
“A lot of lawmakers have probably considered blocking me,” Villwock joked.
Villwock said he’s confused by the state restricting him from working outside, while at the same time the governor is encouraging people to go outside for recreational activities.
“This is the time of year where we get ramped up,” he said. “There’s little to no business right now. We are able to manage Rite Aid and a few grocery stores that are deemed essential under contract.”
Villwock employs about 50 workers during the heart of the season. They only brought back a dozen of them when the coronavirus hit.
That number has since dwindled to two or three.
“I guess the silver lining is it brings you back to reality. We fought hard as business owners to build this. We’ve poured our lives into this. It reconnects you to the fact that this isn’t an easy thing,” Villwock said. “As far as the light at the end of the tunnel, I’m optimistic that common sense will come to those who are making the decisions.”
Arcadia Gardens’ clients have been extremely supportive. Brooks said a few have signed petitions to allow lawn maintenance to resume across Michigan.
Brooks is frustrated that some adjacent states are allowing lawn care, despite a similar statewide stay-home order. “The overall consensus was landscaping and lawn care is essential,” she said. “It’s even determined so on a national level, with almost every state allowing it. Even the CDC is in support.”
Now it appears landscapers and other lawn care workers in Michigan will have to wait at least another three weeks, since the executive order was just extended through the end of April.
“The hardest part is that for 30 years, Arcadia Gardens has been hardwired to be out working 10- to 12-hour days this time of year,” Brooks said. “Instead, we are sitting here watching things grow and there’s nothing we can do about it.”