“Gretchen Whitmer first heard the word “coronavirus” over the 2019 Christmas holidays from her younger sister, who a decade earlier contracted H1N1. Whitmer, just a year into office and preoccupied with her agenda for 2020, barely registered it. She was in a hurry to push forward on some of her campaign promises, like introducing an array of new education programs and repairing Michigan’s badly potholed roads. The state’s Republican lawmakers had blocked her at nearly every turn, but now, with the economy in Michigan and America booming, Whitmer had a plan to make an end-run around the Legislature by issuing $3.5 billion in bonds to help fund her projects. January was going to be about building political momentum for that effort and gearing up for a presidential election in which Michigan, where Donald Trump won by just 10,704 votes in 2016, was again going to be an important battleground state. Whitmer was tapped to deliver the Democratic response to Trump’s annual State of the Union address on Feb. 4.
As the governor began moving ahead with her agenda, though, the state’s chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, was watching the gathering storm with growing concern. Potentially infected travelers were arriving daily in Michigan, but the Centers for Disease Control was not providing her with the support she needed to adequately detect and contain the virus. On Feb. 27, Khaldun briefed the governor and her staff on the epidemic in a conference room adjacent to her office. She said that she was convinced the coronavirus had already come to Michigan; she just couldn’t prove it. Khaldun reminded Whitmer and her staff that there was no vaccine for this virus, that it was highly contagious and that it was much more deadly than the flu. In order to prevent a widespread outbreak, she said, it would almost certainly be necessary to take some pretty extreme measures, like banning large group gatherings and maybe even ordering certain businesses to close temporarily.
A brief silence fell over the room. One of Whitmer’s aides spoke.
“This could be disastrous to the economy,” he said.