Michigan governor reopens factories from May 11, as U.S. jobless ranks grow

DETROIT (Reuters) – Michigan’s governor on Thursday gave the go-ahead to factories in her state to reopen on May 11, removing a major obstacle to North American automakers bringing thousands of idled employees back to work at plants closed by the coronavirus pandemic.

FILE PHOTO: Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow talk to reporters at polling station at the St. Paul Lutheran Church in East Lansing, Michigan, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jeff Kowalsky/File Photo

While Governor Gretchen Whitmer was reopening the manufacturing sector, she also extended her stay-at-home order by about two weeks in hopes of avoiding a new wave of coronavirus infections in the industrial Midwestern state.

Whitmer had been holding off easing the state’s lockdown, drawing protests and hampering efforts to restart vehicle assembly anywhere in the United States because so many critical parts suppliers are based in and around Michigan’s automaking hub of Detroit.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but this is an important step forward,” the governor, a first-term Democrat, said in a statement.

Her announcement came two days after the powerful United Auto Workers union dropped objections to the plan. The UAW previously had insisted May was “too soon and too risky” to restart manufacturing.

Neighboring Ohio, also a key player in the auto industry, gave its OK for manufacturers to reopen on Monday, adding to the clamor for Whitmer to follow suit.

On Thursday, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, announced that bars, restaurants, hair salons, barbershops and other personal care businesses would be permitted to open later this month, subject to social-distancing limits.

Several weeks of widespread business closures meant to curb the spread of the virus have dealt a staggering blow to the U.S. economy, casting Americans out of work in numbers unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s and stoking pressure on politicians to lift restrictions.

DEPRESSION-ERA JOBLESSNESS

The U.S. Labor Department reported on Thursday some 33.5 million U.S. workers filed first-time claims for unemployment benefits during the past six weeks. With much of the nation’s commerce at a virtual standstill, economic forecasts are projecting a sharp decline in the nation’s gross domestic product.

The U.S. auto sector accounts for 6% of U.S. GDP, with more than 835,000 Americans employed in vehicle manufacturing.

Michigan, a key electoral swing state, has also been a U.S. hot spot in the pandemic. As of Thursday, Michigan had registered more than 45,000 confirmed cases and 4,343 deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus. But state officials have said the rate of infection has slowed.

For the nation as a whole, more than 75,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, out of more than 1.25 million known to be infected, according to a Reuters tally.

Michigan and Ohio were among dozens of U.S. states moving to ease constraints on social and business life, despite a lack of vastly expanded diagnostic testing and other safeguards called for under White House guidelines issued in April. They also have forged ahead without waiting for a recommended two-week decline in coronavirus case numbers.

The White House itself again became a focal point of the pandemic as a member of the U.S. military who worked there as a, personal valet to President Trump, was found to be infected. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both have since tested negative, a White House spokesman said.

GUIDELINES SHELVED

The West Wing health scare came as news surfaced that the White House had recently shelved specific, step-by-step guidelines prepared by U.S. health officials to help states determine the safest ways to reopen mass transit, restaurants, daycare centers and other public places.

The 17-page document prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was rejected because it gave “overly prescriptive” guidance, a member of White House coronavirus task force said on Thursday, confirming a report by the Associated Press.

The White House official, who declined to be identified, said the task force had asked for revisions to the document, but could not say whether it will ever be issued. The CDC did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Public health experts warn that reopening prematurely risks unleashing new outbreaks. They also have raised concerns that a state-by-state hodgepodge of differing policies confuses the public and undermines social distancing generally.

In New York and New Jersey, the country’s two hardest-hit states, bars and retail businesses deemed non-essential remain closed, and restaurants are limited to takeout and delivery business. In Georgia and Texas, most retail and dine-in restaurants are open, albeit with restrictions on how many people can be served and how close tables may be to one another.

Trump, who had staked his November re-election bid to the strength of the U.S. economy before the pandemic, has continued to press for an escalation of commerce, acknowledging – as predicted by researchers – it may well cost lives.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he departs on travel to Phoenix, Arizona from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., May 5, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

Yet it remains to be seen how many consumers will venture back into restaurants and retail shops in the midst of a pandemic.

In one indication of public wariness, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, Raphael Bostic, told reporters on Thursday preliminary cellphone tracking data showed that “movement has not gone up appreciably” among consumers.

“Whether having an open economic policy is going to translate into economic activity – we are going to learn this in the next couple of weeks,” he said.

Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit and David Shepardson in Washington; Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper, Maria Caspani, Susan Heavey, Nathan Layne, Howard Schneider and Lucia Mutikani; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall and Steve Gorman; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman

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