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Livengood: Why is Whitmer backing away from Biden’s COVID vaccine mandate? New Detroit Chamber poll offers hints

Crain’s Detroit Business 
Dec.15, 2021
Chad Livengood

Progress in defeating the coronavirus pandemic in Michigan looks to be at a standstill.

One-in-five hospital beds in Michigan are occupied with COVID-19 patients.

Twenty Michigan hospitals reported Monday being at 97 percent of capacity or higher. Another 17 hospitals reported being at 90 percent to 96 percent of their current bed capacity.

New adult vaccinations have been stagnant for months.

The unvaccinated among us aren’t budging, even though their chances of catching the highly contagious coronavirus and being hospitalized and dying from it have never been higher. They’re not getting their kids vaccinated, either.

And President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for employers with more than 100 workers?

Fahgettaboudit.

The public as a whole doesn’t like the idea of the government forcing people out of their jobs for refusing to get poked in the arm.

A new statewide poll commissioned by the Detroit Regional Chamber shows 54 percent of registered voters oppose the Democratic president’s vaccine mandate, implementation of which is on hold because of multiple legal challenges to the workplace rules.

Strong support for the vaccine mandate registered at 31 percent, while strong opposition clocked in at 47 percent.

Of course, Democrats overwhelmingly favor the Democratic president’s policy and Republicans absolutely hate it, according to the poll conducted Nov. 29-Dec. 3 by the Glengariff Group Inc. in Lansing.

More telling is how voters who describe themselves as independents feel about it.

Nearly 58 percent of independents oppose vaccine mandates, while 34 percent support, according to the poll released Wednesday.

Even vaccinated people oppose the Biden mandate: 57 percent of voters who have received one shot oppose it, while 50 percent of voters with two doses oppose requiring a COVID vaccine as a condition of employment.

Only voters who have reported receiving COVID booster shots support the Biden vaccine mandate, by a margin of 2-to-1, according to the poll.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who staked her reputation early in the pandemic on government intervention being the answer, has a team of consultants who are likely reading similar polling data.

That may explain why Whitmer recently made comments in rural Montcalm County north of Grand Rapids expressing concern about Biden’s vaccine mandate as it relates to the stability of state government’s 48,000-employee workforce.

“It’s going to be a problem for all of us,” Whitmer told a business owner in rural Howard City, the Greenville Daily News reported.

Pollster Richard Czuba said Whitmer’s shift to the middle on public health restrictions some 11 months out from her possible re-election is not by accident.

“I think one of the things we’re missing, perhaps, in Gov. Whitmer’s position here is she’s reflective of the state,” Czuba said. “It may be a reflective of a more limited view of what government can and can’t get people to do.”

Instead of the more interventionist governing approach Whitmer took earlier in the pandemic, Czuba said, this time around “it’s a much more muted approach where the government has made vaccinations available, all of the information is available and … people need to take responsibility now for themselves.”

About 24 percent of voters surveyed said they would look for another job if their employer mandated the vaccine.

As COVID cases rose sharply over the past three months, Whitmer has repeatedly shunned mask mandates — while still wearing one in public appearances — that her administration was enforcing for the unvaccinated as recently as May.

Whitmer’s health department director has said as recently as Friday that no new COVID restrictions are coming, despite an onslaught of sick people overwhelming urgent cares, emergency rooms and doctors’ offices in several areas of the state.

It’s unclear whether there’s a crisis level for hospitals where Whitmer and her health department will step in and reimpose restrictions that Republicans in the Legislature have fought tooth and nail since April 2020. So far, they just keep urging people to get vaccinated.

That less in-your-face approach might be working for he first-term Democratic governor — politically, Czuba said.

The Detroit Chamber’s new poll shows independent voters are warming up to Whitmer again.

About 46 percent of independent voters said they approve of the job Whitmer is doing as governor, a 17-point swing from the Detroit Chamber’s last statewide poll in September when 51 percent of independents gave the governor a negative approval rating.

As a result, 48.3 percent of all voters surveyed in the latest poll approve of Whitmer’s job performance and about 43.8 percent disapprove.

In September, Whitmer’s approval rating fell within the chamber poll’s 4 percent margin of error, in part because she polled poorly with independent voters who typically decide statewide elections in this state.

“It may be a one-time thing that we see, but when independents make the decision in Michigan, that’s the number we have to keep watching,” Czuba said. “Gov. Whitmer has pulled away from the (Biden) mandate issue and her numbers are much stronger as a result.”

Whitmer’s more hands-off approach to the fourth surge is an “acknowledgement that people are firmly entrenched” in how they view COVID as a threat to their lives, Czuba said.

“People are taking their positions — and nobody’s changing their positions,” Czuba said. “What’s the value of a mandate at this point? People are firmly entrenched.”

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