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'It's time to reopen Ottawa County,' local lawmakers say

State representatives and a state senator are saying it's time for their region to reopen.
Credit: Courtesy: Brett Farmer
Local photographer Brett Farmer captured the empty streets of downtown Holland following Michigan's stay at home order.

LANSING, Mich. — State lawmakers who represent Ottawa County are asking the governor to reopen their region as cases and deaths from coronavirus flatten. 

Michigan Reps. Bradley Slagh (R-Zeeland), Jim Lilly (R-Park Township), Luke Meerman (R-Coopersville) and Sen. Roger Victory (R-Hudsonville) issued a collective statement in which they asked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to provide an explanation for why certain regions are reopening. 

The governor announced on Monday that the Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan will have some restrictions relaxed Friday, including allowing retailers and restaurants to reopen with capacity restrictions. These two areas are regions 6 and 8 in the state's reopening plan. 

"The data has shown in these regions of our state that we can phase more sectors into re-engagement of our economy," said Whitmer in Monday's press briefing. "When it comes to new cases per million percent of positive tests and deaths, these regions are far below the statewide average, and they will continue to ramp up our testing--one of the most crucial things that we have in this fight against COVID-19."

Credit: State of Michigan
The Michigan Economic Recovery Council divided the state into eight regions in order to provide a framework on reopening the state after weeks of a stay at home order.

These regions, across 32 counties, report a combined total of about 1% of the state's COVID-19 cases and deaths. As of Tuesday, Ottawa County reported 638 cases of the virus and 30 deaths, which is also about 1% of the total number of cases and less than 1% of the deaths. 

The Ottawa County lawmakers contend that the overall low case count is evidence that their region is also ready to reopen. They express concerns about local businesses, people being able to return to work and resuming non-emergency health care.

“Our local retailers and restaurateurs are part of what make Ottawa County so great, and they are in serious jeopardy of losing their businesses they worked so hard to build.” said Slagh in the statement. "While I’ve been so impressed by the way our community has backed these businesses with takeout and curbside orders, it’s simply not enough for many businesses to survive. It’s time to reopen Ottawa County.” 

Both Lilly and Victory cited high rates of unemployment in the county, urging the governor to let people go back to work. 

“While we have had some success in assisting displaced workers with navigating our states unemployment system, people across our communities are facing hard times as they struggle to pay their bills and feed their families without access to their regular employment,” said Lilly. “The governor should support these hard-working individuals getting back to their jobs if they can do so in a safe work environment.  Again, we have to get away from talking about essential and nonessential jobs and instead consider which jobs are safe vs. unsafe.” 

The governor has said the state will reopen regionally and based on workforce, meaning low-risk industries in low-risk areas will be reopening first. Since issuing the first expansive stay at home order, the governor has allowed some non-essential industries to return to work, including construction, real estate and manufacturing. 

Despite that, Victory says Ottawa County experience a 1,600% increase in unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic. 

“These are good, hardworking people who have put everything into supporting their families and improving our community. They have been told by the governor to close up shop and go home, that the government will take care of them during this forced shutdown. Months later, many of these people are still waiting on their first payment from the Unemployment Agency. This is unacceptable. This is not how the people of Ottawa County, nor anyone else in Michigan, should be treated. We need to open Ottawa County now and get our residents safely back to work," he said. 

More than 1 million Michiganders have filed for unemployment in recent months. 

Meerman asked for the governor to allow Ottawa County residents to be able to have access to non-emergency health care, like the eye doctor, dentist, preventative surgeries--all of which have been paused. He said now, health care businesses are facing permanent closure because of the slowdown in these types of services. 

Whitmer said that regions 6 and 8 will act as a model for the rest of the state to watch how slowly reopening these areas progresses. Ottawa County is in region two, which is being called the Grand Rapids region and accounts for 13 counties. 

"The whole state's watching to make sure we get this right. If we get this right, we will be able to take the next step, and the next. But it's dependent on all of us doing our part," she said. 

Michigan's stay at home order is currently in effect until May 28. 

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