LSA senior Jacob Chludzinski has spent the last few weeks hunkered down in the comfort of his family home in Clinton Township, Mich., keeping up with schoolwork, finalizing plans for after graduation and enjoying family time.
“Although the current situation is unfortunate, I am glad I have the opportunity to be safe at home with my family,” Chludzinski said. “The main shift has been trying to become accustomed to the ‘Groundhog Day’-type routine we are all in. It is important to stay active and motivated, but these conditions have made it hard.”
Chludzinski is one of the millions of Michiganders confined to their homes due to a statewide stay-at-home order implemented by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on March 10 that has recently been extended until April 30 in response to the spread of COVID-19.
Michigan has been hit particularly hard, where the virus has infected more than 24,000 residents and killed more than a thousand. Detroit is considered to be the latest hotspot of the coronavirus, with the third-most cases and deaths in the United States.
Whitmer, like most other state governors, made the emergency declarations at the request of public health officials, who say aggressive social distancing is crucial to saving lives as it prevents health care systems from becoming even more overwhelmed.
However, the declarations have made Chludzinski, a member of the University’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative-leaning group advocating for limited government, and others wonder how individual liberties are being balanced with state interests in times of emergency.
“I understood Governor Whitmer’s initial declaration,” Chludzinski said. “My initial reaction understood that we were entering a time where individual liberties would be compromised for the greater health and safety of our nation. However, it became clear almost immediately that the vagueness and uncertain timeline of several restrictions would lead to many constitutional questions.”
Whitmer’s executive order limits gatherings, traveling and bans all non-essential workers from going to work. In the recent extension of the order, Whitmer has now mandated that non-family gatherings and vacation travel are strictly prohibited. The extension further regulates how essential business ought to run in order to promote everyone’s health and safety.
Whitmer’s orders have limited the way Michiganders can exercise certain liberties. This has led some to question what the long-lasting effects of the pandemic will be on the way we think about states’ rights versus federal power and individual liberties versus these powers.
The orders have had growing opposition from Republican leaders in the Michigan House and Senate, particularly regarding their effect on the economy. Mike Shirkey, state Senate Majority Leader, R-Clarke Lake, has been one major critic of the orders, writing and sharing a Facebook post that expressed his disapproval at the extension of the emergency declarations.
“Under the guise of protecting our health….she is DESTROYING our HEALTH by killing our Livelihoods [sic],” Shirkey wrote.
LSA junior Chase Camp, vice chair of the University’s American Civil Liberties Union undergraduate chapter, who is in support of the ban, said it is important to stay aware of the actions taken by governments in times of emergency and to keep our civil liberties in mind.
“With pandemics and big events like this, governments are very likely to take away rights from people just because people are panicking and are less likely to pay attention to those rights being taken away,” Camp said. “I’m just being conscious of what kind of rights are being taken away. Just like, are they crossing lines? But nothing has happened yet. Within Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer has done fairly well.”
Whitmer has cited multiple state laws to justify her executive orders. She specifically gave credit to the Emergency Management Act 390 of 1976 and the Emergency Powers of Governor Act 302 of 1945 which allow her to declare a state of emergency and provide her a framework of how to utilize her power to manage the state effectively within the emergency time period.
Michigan Law professor Richard Primus, who teaches constitutional law, said he believes the emergency declarations made by Whitmer are constitutional, even if they seem to limit the scope of individual liberties people routinely exercise.
“The states have broad power to protect public health,” Primus said. “As long as they don’t violate federal law or constitutional rights, the states can do pretty much whatever they deem necessary in a pandemic to protect the public health … I think (the state government has) done a good job (of) limiting its scope to kinds of movements that can be curtailed without really destroying people’s lives.”
Evan Caminker, former Michigan Law dean and current Michigan Law professor of American constitutional law, said the broad implementation of the order prevents the executive order from violating any individual liberties ingrained in the U.S. Constitution.
“The Constitution always contemplates a balance between legitimate governmental interest on the one hand and individual liberties on the other hand,” Caminker said. “Different times call for different measures … The Supreme Court of the United States has made clear that if there is a general law that applies to everybody, the fact that it must incidentally burden some… does not make it unconstitutional.”
Whitmer’s emergency declaration in response to the spread of the coronavirus is not the first emergency declaration she has made while in office. In 2019, Whitmer declared a state of emergency in response to record-low temperatures that swept through the state. She also declared states of emergencies in certain parts of the state when two counties faced large amounts of flooding.
However, with the coronavirus spreading rapidly across the state, Whitmer’s tenure has not seen an emergency like this before. Detroit, the epicenter of Michigan’s outbreaks, has seen almost half of the state’s cases and deaths alone.
Caminker commented on Whitmer’s order and the power the state has to mitigate the pandemic’s rapid spread across the Great Lakes state.
“The scale of this is totally unprecedented,” Caminker said. “In a true emergency, when the health of the people clearly does seem to rest on everybody having to stay at home and not gather, that would be a circumstance where I think the power of the state overrides the interests of individuals to do the things they otherwise would be doing.”
Caminker said he thinks the pandemic may convince some that the national government should be strengthened.
“I think it’s possible that people who have been championing states’ rights and arguing against strong federal power might be converted here,” Caminker said. “This situation shows pretty clearly that sometimes when there’s a national problem, you really need a very strong national response.”
Chludzinski said the post-coronavirus era might allow for more appreciation of the freedoms U.S. residents possess, such as the freedom of assembly outdoors.
“I think we take for granted how blessed we are,” Chludzinski said. “I hope that people will have a newfound respect and appreciation for the freedoms we have in this country when this is all over.”
Reporter Julia Forrest can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.