By Michael Martina and Ben Klayman
DETROIT (Reuters) – Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said on Friday she is hopeful the state can begin to reengage parts of its economy beginning on May 1, days after facing a barrage of criticism for her strict measures to combat the new coronavirus.
Later on Friday, President Donald Trump, who has traded jabs with Whitmer over the state’s handling of the outbreak, tweeted: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” along with similar tweets naming other states with other Democratic governors.
During a Friday afternoon press conference, Whitmer said she hoped Trump’s tweet wasn’t encouraging more protests, and that anyone with a high profile should be assuring the public that Americans will get through the outbreak.
“We will re-engage our economy when it’s safe,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is to have a second wave here.”
Trump did not mention Ohio, whose Republican governor has set a similar target for economic reopening. The chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, has criticized Whitmer, saying she was turning Michigan into a “police state.”
As of Friday, Michigan, a crucial swing state that Trump narrowly won in 2016, had more than 30,000 COVID-19 cases and 2,227 deaths, though Whitmer said the number of new cases was showing signs of leveling off.
“I am hopeful that come May 1 we will make some steps forward, and as we proceed, if that goes well and we continue to see progress, that we then go into a second phase,” Whitmer said, referring to a continued decrease in hospitalizations from the virus.
Whitmer earlier told a webcast town hall with a Detroit business chamber that she recognized people were “desperate to get back to work,” and that no solution would be zero risk.
Michigan would have to be strategic and “methodically” re-engage sectors of the economy in waves based on regions and businesses that are less at risk, she said.
Sweeping stay-at-home orders in 42 U.S. states to combat the new coronavirus have shuttered businesses, disrupted lives and decimated the economy, and some protesters have begun taking to the streets to urge governors to rethink the restrictions.
Whitmer, floated as a potential running mate for presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for the election against Trump in November, has imposed some of the country’s toughest limits on travel and business, which drew thousands of protesters to the state’s capital Lansing on Wednesday.
Trump, a Republican, has pressed in recent weeks for getting Americans back to work soon. He had said he had unilateral authority to end the lockdowns but backed down following objections from Democrats and Republicans, who cited the U.S. Constitution.
The head of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce on Thursday urged Whitmer to revise her stay-at-home order, which he called too restrictive. Rich Studley said she should recognize some parts of the state were not as hard hit and could reopen sooner.
The governors for Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky have formed a partnership to work together on restarting the economies in their states, which collectively account for about 16% of total U.S. economic output.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on Thursday said his state would also start to reopen on May 1.
The United States has by far the highest death toll of any country in the global coronavirus pandemic, and public health officials have warned against a premature easing of social distancing orders.
(Reporting by Michael Martina and Ben Klayman; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bill Berkrot and Sonya Hepinstall)