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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says decision on reopening gyms, indoor athletic facilities coming ‘very soon’

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, September 2, 2020, 4:15 pm

If we’re going all-in on the football analogies, at least we know that the governor has the ball, and she’s set to do something with it soon.

It remains to be seen if Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer going to author a new version of John Elway’s “The Drive,” throw a Hail Mary, or run out the clock.

At least she didn’t punt the ball back. 

The ‘ball’ in this case is the decision on re-opening indoor athletic facilities, that would allow some of the moderate-risk sports — which have been on hold in six of the state’s eight regions — to commence competition inside, and give guidance on whether higher-risk contact sports — like football and boys soccer — can play safely outside. 

At Wednesday’s weekly COVID-19 news conference, devoted mostly to a $5 billion lending program by Huntington Bank, she noted repeatedly that a decision on athletics and gyms is forthcoming “very soon,” leaving us all in the same place we were before: Still waiting. 

“Before I open it up for questions I want to say a few words about gyms and organized sports.  A lot of people are feeling anxious, our students and coaches, and small-business owners,” she said at the start of her question-and-answer segment.

“I also know that Michiganders, me included, love sports. We love to compete. It’s in our DNA, and it’s part of what makes the state so special. When it comes to battling COVID-19, we all have to be on the same team, and I want people to understand that we’re working around the clock, and have been for the duration, to assure that every determination is made with the best expertise, the best protocols, following the best science. That’s what we’ve continued to do, and that’s how we will continue to operate. It’s what also has contributed to Michigan being in the strong position that we are, relative to the rest of the country. We have to get this right. We take this very seriously, and the decisions that I will make in the coming days, and announce will be made in a way that are protecting athletes, and families and coaches and parents and patrons, and our small-business owners, as well. Peoples’ lives are at stake. COVID is a real threat, all across our state, and I will continue to treat it like that. For now, I want everyone to know that I will have more to say on that topic very soon, so stay tuned, keep your eye on the ball, and keep working to beat this virus together.”

The Michigan High School Athletic Association, which has been in a holding pattern for the better part of two weeks, waiting for that clarification, can’t do much until it comes. In a statement issued after the governor’s press conference, the association said as much: OK, we’ll wait. 

“The MHSAA has been in constant contact with the Governor’s office seeking answers and direction for fall sports under EO (Executive Order) 160 since that order was issued, expressing the urgency for these decisions on behalf of our member school students, staff and families,” MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl said in the statement. “This direct communication will continue and we will take Governor Whitmer at her word today that decisions will be made and shared with everyone very soon. We will have no other comment or media availability until the Governor addresses these athletic questions.”

After appearances on consecutive days last week amounted to “we have no update to give you” sessions, Uyl did not make his regularly-scheduled guest spot on “The Huge Show” radio program on Wednesday. 

In the interim, the association has indicated — according to several published reports — that it would be willing to reexamine the idea of playing football this fall, but laid the decision at Gov. Whitmer’s doorstep. 

Asked if she was surprised that the association “punted the decision” back to her, Whitmer chucked before answering.

“Good use of football terminology there,” she said. “Listen, I think that there are leaders in various roles that are struggling to figure out what the right thing to do is. The science is incredibly important, that we stay focused on that, that we work together. I think crises really reveal peoples’ character, it’s been said, and I think we see that happening. I’m going to continue to keep working with the association to make sure that the steps that are taken are absolutely tethered to the best science, and keep our athletes and their families and our educators safe.”

There are also some concerns about the rising numbers of cases per million in Regions 6 and 8 — the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula and the entire Upper Peninsula, the only areas where all fall sports but football have been played, to date — which could be part of the hesitation to reopen. They were first mentioned in the briefing by Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, and brought up again by Gov. Whitmer in response to a question about the frustration of players, administrators and coaches seeing both the positive overall trends in Michigan, yet other neighboring states — with worse overall statistical trends — actively playing all sports, including football.

“Like I said, there will be more to come, but I’d like to acknowledge that the reason why we are in a stronger position is because we’ve been following the science, we’ve been very smart about promulgating the protocols, we’ve been working with the leaders in the various parts of our economy so that when they are engaged, we can do so safely,” Gov. Whitmer said.

“With our numbers, as Dr. J (Khaldun) articulated moments ago, especially in Regions 6 and 8 — we’re seeing numbers in a concerning level right now, so being very mindful of following the science and to continue to do what’s got us in that strong position, it’s going to be important for our continued health and our continued long-term security. 

“No one wants to engage additional things in our economy more than I. This has been a tough time for every single one of us, and the more normalcy we can have, the better for all of us, but it’s absolutely hand in hand with the numbers of COVID cases across the state, on whether we all mask up. If we want to continue to keep this economy engaged, and engage further, and keep our kids getting their education, and the possibility of sports, we’ve got to mask up so we don’t see these numbers go up.”

[Photo courtesy of MI.Gov]

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