Last year, Ms. Whitmer, a Democrat, shut down her state due to a barrage of demonstrations. She is now attempting a new strategy, relying on personal responsibility. The coronavirus pandemic is out of control in Michigan more than anywhere else in the United States.
Workplaces, bars, churches, and family weddings are all experiencing outbreaks. The number of patients in hospitals is at an all-time high. More than 7,000 new infections are recorded every day, a sevenfold rise since late February. In addition, Michigan is home to nine of the top ten metro areas with the highest recent case rates in the world.
“Policy change alone won’t change the tide,” Ms. Whitmer said on Friday, as she asked — but did not order — that the public take a two-week break from indoor dining, in-person high school and youth sports. “We need everyone to step up and to take personal responsibility here.”
It’s an unusual occurrence in the pandemic: a high-profile Democratic governor defying doctors and epidemiologists in her state and instead urging the public to take voluntary steps to stop the virus from spreading. Restaurants and bars are operating at a reduced capacity, Detroit Tigers fans have returned to the stadium, and most schools have reopened their doors to students.
Ms. Whitmer’s current stance represents the pandemic’s changing politics, which are influenced more by public dissatisfaction with limitations and the optimism provided by vaccinations than by any rethinking about how to better contain the virus among public health officials.
Her strategy, which prioritizes individual accountability over statewide controls, may have been pulled from the playbook of a Republican elected official, and on Friday, she appeared to try to transfer blame to the Biden administration for declining her offer to send extra vaccine doses to her troubled state.
Republicans in Michigan, who dominate the State Legislature and have fought Ms. Whitmer’s decisions at every level, unexpectedly expressed support for her strategy.
Even as reports of new cases reached their late-fall peak and deaths continued to rise, State Representative Beau LaFave, a Republican from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, said that patience for the governor’s laws had long since evaporated in his district and that Ms. Whitmer was right not to enforce additional restrictions.
“She should have been doing that this whole time,” Mr. LaFave said, “allowing individuals to do risk assessments on their own health.”
Many Democrats in Michigan seem to agree that the time for shutting down the government has passed.
Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley expressed concern about the rapid increase in new incidents, but said he did not support sweeping restrictions from Ms. Whitmer at this time. Mr. Neeley, a Democrat, had imposed a strict curfew in his own city earlier in the pandemic, but he doubted that such measures would have the same effect now.
“Those things were effective,” he said. “I think they would be less effective if you tried to use the same tools and tactics as you did once before.”
Re-election is also hovering in the background. Michigan is a deeply divided state, and Ms. Whitmer’s seat will be up for election next year, providing Republicans with an opportunity.
“This is the biggest thing in 100 years,” Jack O’Malley, a Republican member of the Michigan House, said of the pandemic. “I would say it’s got to be 80 percent of why somebody’s going to vote or not vote for her.”
Nonetheless, as the situation worsens, a small but increasing number of doctors and public health officials are urging Ms. Whitmer to take even more drastic action.
There is no single explanation why Michigan has been hit so hard in recent weeks, but the latest spike has been attributed in part to the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first discovered in the United Kingdom and is now widespread in the state. Recent infections indicate that small social gatherings, which are difficult to target due to government restrictions, were driving case increases. Spring break trips and youth athletic activities have emerged as areas of focus, with children responsible for a higher percentage of incidents.
A influx of coronavirus patients has put a strain on many hospitals in Michigan, causing them to postpone several elective procedures this week. Smaller, smaller hospitals had difficulty finding urban hospitals that would welcome their coronavirus patients in need of intensive-care beds. In a five-hour stretch, one doctor in Lansing admitted five such patients.
“It’s hard for me to have hope when I don’t see the basic public health precautions being implemented and sustained,” said Debra Furr-Holden, a Michigan State University epidemiologist whom Ms. Whitmer appointed to the state’s Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. “If we continue the way we’ve been going, we’re going to continue to get what we’ve been getting, which is these ebbs and flows and these spikes. It will be a vicious cycle and the vaccines will not be able to keep pace.”
As the pandemic reaches its second year, the delicate balance between politics and public health has become much more so. Residents are drained, business owners are reeling, and no other state is seeing a similar uptick, unlike last year.
There is also reason to be optimistic, as this virus outbreak differs from previous outbreaks in that one out of every three Michigan people has begun the vaccination process, and one out of every five is completely immunized. With older citizens receiving vaccines quickly, health officials believe the majority of people infected with the coronavirus are now under the age of 65, a demographic that is less susceptible.