- Associated Press - Monday, January 4, 2021

Detroit Free Press. Jan. 3, 2021.

Editorial: A better normal: Changes worth preserving when the pandemic ends

Ask most Michiganders their fondest wish for 2021 and you’re likely to hear some variant of the one Donald Trump expressed repeatedly throughout his 2020 presidential campaign:

“All we want,” the outgoing president told supporters again and again as he barnstormed a country ravaged by COVID-19 and economic stagnation, “is for things to go back to normal.”

And if we take that to mean a return to hugging, gathering in groups, going to work and school, boarding buses and planes, and the hundred other conventions we all took for granted before the pandemic - well, who doesn’t yearn for that sort of normalcy?



Almost as universal is the desire for a return to a brand of political discourse less vitriolic, distrustful and exhausting than the sort that pervaded Trump’s tenure. Who one blames for that epidemic of incivility depends, of course, on one’s politics. But few Americans of any political stripe are hoping for a new year in which the volume of our national debate grows louder and more acrimonious.

Beyond that, nostalgia for the status quo depends mostly on what one’s own status quo was before the pandemic brought the world to its knees.

For those who were already struggling with joblessness, homelessness, food insecurity or substandard access to health care and education, the coronavirus crisis has heralded both an exacerbation of those deficits and new mpulse to address them collectively. Few of those fondly remember a nation in which such inequities were overlooked

And there is consolation, as well as terror, in the pandemic’s illumination of our common vulnerability, even if the risks are not evenly distributed. Those who believe Americans have become too self-absorbed, and too impervious to the ways in which the deprivations of the few threaten the well-being of the many, have welcomed this rude awakening, however much they hate the plague that provided it.

There are, in short, some pre-pandemic habits we cannot afford to resume, and some COVID-era adjustments we desperately need to preserve even if and when we obtain the Holy Grail of herd immunity.

Here are a few of the latter to think about as we hope for a less tumultuous 2021:

Attention to public health

When Americans argued about health care before the pandemic, they typically argued about what resources and choices should be available to individuals, at what cost and at whose expense: Is health care a right or a privilege? Should everyone afflicted by the same illness enjoy equal access to the most effective treatment? Should limited medical resources be allocated according to the whims of health care providers, elected leaders, or the free market?

But COVID-19 has made most of us painfully aware of our collective interest in the baseline health of our communities, our nation, and even those overseas. Even more profoundly than it has shaken our economy, the contagion has shattered any illusion that the costs of significant public health lapses can be effectively confined within political, geographic or demographic boundaries, even by privileged individuals armed with exceptional medical resources.

Post-pandemic measures of our economic prosperity or national security must take into account the risks we all court when the health of a few is neglected.

An end to water shutoffs

It has ever made sense to shut off anyone’s water, even if they can’t pay. Epidemiologists, public health officers and water activists have warned for years that separating vulnerable residents from clean water and sanitation pose health risks to a much larger population - and been roundly ignored by elected officials at every level. Now, finally, the pandemic has forced policymakers to take those warnings seriously.

The distribution of federal CARES Act dollars across Michigan show that access to clean water is a statewide problem.

The state has renewed a moratorium on water shutoffs, but temporary measures aren’t enough. Some households simply can’t afford to pay market price for water, and state and local governments must find affordable solutions for those customers.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has announced a moratorium on water shutoffs through 2022, and says the city will use the time to create a water affordability plan for Detroiters. It’s a step in the right direction. But Michigan and its cities wlll ultimately have to forgive many past-due water bill balances and find ways to guarantee water availability to all Michiganders.

Ending mass incarceration

As COVID-19 spread in Michigan, it quickly became clear that incarcerated people were at particular risk. Wayne and other counties worked quickly to lower their jail populations, releasing 40% of inmates.

In Wayne County, a 2020 report by the Vera Institute’s Center for Sentencing and Corrections found, 67% of people in jail hadn’t been convicted of anything, but couldn’t afford to make bail. More than half were there for driving-related offenses, like a suspended license or expired registration.

This practice never made sense - and the pandemic showed us a new way of doing things. Most of those released were fitted with electronic tethers. Despite the significant number of releases, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office says the absconder rate remains below 4%.

That may also be because of a change in the way. courts are conducting business during the pandemic. Many court appearances have been handled via Zoom, and defense attorneys say that while most trials shouldn’t be held via video, conducting routine appearances remotely makes it easier for defendants juggling work, school and childcare obligations to appear on schedule.

There are lessons to be learned, here, and we hope Michigan’s judges, prosecutors and lawmakers are paying attention.

Schools

It’s not as if no one knew that Michigan children live and study in wildly varying circumstances. And there have been no shortage of calls to ameliorate disparities that effectively sabotage learning for many students.

But like so much else, the pandemic’s shift to remote schooling brought the issue into sharp focus: Kids who don’t have laptops or tablets or internet access simply can’t participate in online school. School districts using state, federal and philanthropic dollars have struggled valiantly to supply technology and access. But access isn’t the only disadvantage that’s emerged during online learning - and many disparities will persist when kids are back in the classroom.

Kids who don’t have secure housing, access to clean water and sanitation or enough to eat are likely to struggle in school, whether classes are in-person or online. Once face-to-face learning is again the norm, it’s on all of us to continue to see our most vulnerable kids’ needs, and to provide the support they need.

Foreclosures

It’s been clear for years that Wayne County’s annual tax foreclosure auction was a catastrophe, dealing out more harm to residents, and to the fabric of our neighborhoods, than any revenues it returns to the public treasury.

And it’s been equally clear that it would make more sense to simply stop holding the auctions, although officials protested they had no authority to do.

Until this year, that is, when Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree announced that there would be no foreclosures, and no tax foreclosure auction, in 2020.

It’s a long-overdue development. Last year, Detroit and Wayne County announced a new payment plan for impoverished Detroit homeowners that would cap back taxes at 10% of the home’s taxable value. It’s not the full retroactive exemption foreclosure reform advocates had urged, but it’s a useful tool.

Early indications are that more Detroit homeowners are obtaining the tax exempt status that qualifies them for this program. We devoutly hope the city and county use this foreclosure moratorium to ensure that all qualifying homeowners have a chance to enroll in this program, and that other communities around the state take note.

Voting and citizenship

We may never know in what proportions concern about the pandemic; vehement reaction against (or enthusiasm for) the faux populism of Donald Trump. and efforts to facilitate absentee voting combined to yield the surprisingly high turnout in last year’s presidential election, but democracies are most resilient when electoral participation is the norm, rather than the exception.

It’s notable and heartening that turnout spiked despite an unprecedented, well-organized campaign to suppress voting in general and absentee voting in particular.

Most Americans are eager to discard the exhausting habits of hypervigilance they cultivated during the incumbent president’s norm-busting tenure, but Trump’s legacy of dismantling the institutions and infrastructure designed to protect Americans have taught everyone the costs of political inattention and complacency.

However the pandemic loosens its grip in 2021, it will bode ill for the future of democratic government if 2020′s impressive turnout turns out to be the high water mark of Americans’ electoral participation, rather than the beginning of a more widespread and sustained engagement in our communal interests.

___

The Detroit News. Dec. 30, 2020.

Editorial: Michigan keeps unfairly targeting restaurants

We were pleased to see Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon ease restrictions on a variety of businesses, as well as allow the return of in-person classes at high schools. Yet restaurants remain a target, and it’s decimating the industry.

The state must figure out a better way to balance reducing the spread of COVID-19 and harming such an important sector of the Michigan economy - and leaving many residents without a job this holiday season.

Whitmer unilaterally extended the indoor dining ban through Jan. 15, which means that restaurants across the state will all be prevented from serving patrons indoors, even with restrictions. And as any Michiganian knows, this time of year isn’t conducive to outdoor dining.

The governor on Tuesday claimed the ban on indoor dining is working and hinted she would consider “aggressive steps” to lift restrictions after the first of the year, ahead of the current order’s expiration date.

That’s exactly what she should do.

The state must figure out a better way to balance reducing the spread of COVID-19 and harming such an important sector of the Michigan economy.

We previously advocated that restaurants should be allowed to reopen on a case-by-case basis as long as they can prove they are taking the right steps to keep patrons and employees safe from COVID-19.

Justin Winslow, who heads the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, has warned for months the “beleaguered” industry is at risk of even more permanent loss unless the state changes course quickly. A recent survey found 5,600 (33%) of Michigan restaurants say they’ll likely be out of business in six months.

Winslow said it’s frustrating for restaurant owners to see how other similar industries and even mall and hospital cafeterias have been allowed to reopen, and it seems like restaurants are bearing the brunt of what should be a shared sacrifice.

State GOP leaders also point to inconsistencies in the latest order that allows casinos, cinemas, bowling alleys and stadiums to reopen for business but keeps indoor options at restaurants and bars off the table.

“This is a continuation of banning boats with a motor,” says Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, referencing Whitmer’s lockdown order from the spring. “You can go into the theater but you can’t get popcorn. You can go to the bowling alley, but you can’t get a beer. The public views this the same way I do - as absurd rules.”

Whitmer continues to use unilateral, statewide orders through the Health Department, which implies she doesn’t trust restaurant owners and residents to use good judgment and common sense to keep the virus at bay.

“This has bothered me more than anything else I have seen while serving in office - the unequal treatment of a narrowly defined industry,” Shirkey says.

Whitmer and health officials should stop singling out the restaurant industry. Instead, they must offer restaurants that are ensuring their establishments are following COVID guidelines a lifeline.

___

The Mining Journal. Dec. 31, 2020.

Editorial: State COVID-19 relief bill good news but politics should stop

With 2020 drawing to a close, it appears that more relief is on the way for Michiganders.

On Tuesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a $106 million plan that will provide relief to businesses and fund efforts to fight the economic impact of the coronavirus, according to an Associated Press story.

Though the plan was a collaborative effort between the governor and the legislature, Whitmer told reporters that the legislature strayed from the original agreement and that the $465 million plan the legislature sent to her desk had been cut.

Unemployment benefits will be extended from 20 weeks to 26 weeks through the end of March by signing a separate bill. But Whitmer used a line-item veto to get rid of a $220 million allocation that would have helped businesses fund unemployment benefits.

“This will not impact individual workers,” she said. “General fund dollars have got to be used to fund essential services like vaccines and PPE, not to give tax breaks to big businesses, right now.”

Under the plan, the Michigan Strategic Fund will receive $55 million to distribute survival grants of up to $20,000 to small businesses that were forced to close and grants of up to $15,000 if the businesses partially closed.

The relief plan also allocates $3.5 million for grants of up to $40,000 to help entertainment venues and $45 million in payments to workers who were laid off during the pandemic.

We are glad to see this legislation come to fruition. Many of our local businesses can certainly use the help, as well as these entertainment venues that have been hit harder than most during this pandemic. We may have a vaccine now, but life simply won’t feel “normal” on the other side of this without some of these businesses up and running.

We have said it before, but it’s worth saying again: we would like to see our Michigan lawmakers stop playing partisan politics, because it is only hurting our neighbors. They should be doing what is best for all Michiganders, not just their side of the aisle.

END

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