Michigan Governor Whitmer further opens state economy ahead of Trump visit

DETROIT (Reuters) – Michigan’s governor announced more steps to re-open the state’s economy on Thursday, offering timelines for the resumption of some businesses and allowing some social gatherings as long as guidelines to curb the spread of the coronavirus are observed.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer made the announcement ahead of a trip by President Donald Trump to a Ford Motor Co plant in Michigan making ventilators for patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

In a news briefing on Thursday morning, Whitmer said effective immediately people could meet in groups of up to 10, so long as they observed social distancing restrictions.

Retail stores and auto showrooms can resume operations by appointment beginning on May 26, while increased veterinarian, dental, and medical services will be allowed starting May 29.

“We’ve taken significant steps forward to re-engage our economy safely and responsibly over the past few weeks. Now we are going to take some time to ensure that these new measures are working,” Whitmer said.

She said that she would likely announce another short-term extension of her broader stay-at-home order, which is set to run through May 28.

The move follows the announcement on Monday of a partial reopening in dozens of northern counties starting Friday in an acknowledgement that the outbreak has had less impact on those areas.

Trump, a Republican who is basing his re-election bid in part on a strong economy, has been critical of Whitmer and other Democratic governors over the pace of their re-openings.

Michigan is one of the states harder hit by the virus and has had some of the most restrictive stay-at-home orders in the country.

While polls show she remains popular in Michigan, Whitmer has faced mainstream backlash against the orders, with a growing number of local officials and business leaders arguing the restrictions have outlived their usefulness.

In April, hundreds of protesters, some armed, gathered at the state Capitol in Lansing to demonstrate against the orders.

On Wednesday, Trump threatened to withhold funding from Michigan over its plan for expanded mail-in voting, saying without evidence it could lead to voter fraud. He seemed to back away from the threat later.

Trump won Michigan narrowly in 2016, and it is expected to be a battleground state again in November.

Whitmer is frequently cited as a potential running mate for the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden.

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Exclusive: Michigan governor to announce manufacturing can reopen in state – sources

(Reuters) – Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday is expected to announce that the state’s factories can reopen soon, removing one of the last major obstacles to North American automakers bringing thousands of laid-off employees back to work amid the coronavirus pandemic, two people familiar with the plans said.

Companies will be told they can begin work next week at their plants, including training their workforces for the restart, the sources said.

This week, General Motors Co (GM.N) and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA) (FCHA.MI) (FCAU.N) had said they were targeting resuming vehicle production in North America on May 18, but suppliers would need time to prepare ahead for that date.

Whitmer is scheduled to provide an update of the state’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak at 3 p.m. EDT.

The governor previously extended the state’s coronavirus stay-at-home order through May 15, but lifted restrictions for some businesses other than manufacturing. Neighboring Ohio allowed manufacturing to resume on Monday, and Whitmer had faced increasing calls to follow suit.

Michigan’s shutdown had stymied efforts by the Detroit Three and rival automakers to restart vehicle assembly anywhere in the United States, because so many critical parts suppliers are based in the state.

Automakers and their suppliers already have begun gearing up for a possible resumption of work at their U.S. plants, but needed the official go-ahead from Whitmer.

On Wednesday, No. 1 U.S. automaker GM said it was aiming to reopen its North American plants on May 18, the day after smaller Italian-American rival FCA provided the same target. Ford Motor Co (F.N) has not said what date it is targeting.

The automakers’ plans were tacitly approved on Tuesday by the United Auto Workers union, which represents the Detroit automakers’ hourly U.S. plant workers. The union had previously said early May was “too soon and too risky” to restart manufacturing.

Whitmer, a Democrat, has come under pressure from some Michigan residents and Republican lawmakers to ease her lockdown of the state to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. She has emphasized a phased approach to reopening the state, addressing regions and businesses that are less affected or better protected.

Whitmer has been mentioned as a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and has been a target of criticism from Republican President Donald Trump.

Michigan, which Trump narrowly won in 2016, is considered a crucial swing state in the November presidential election and the state’s COVID-19 infections rank among the highest in the country. As of Wednesday, Michigan had more than 45,000 COVID-19 cases and 4,250 deaths, but state officials have said the rate of infection has slowed.

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