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Gov. Whitmer turns to persuasion over COVID-19 restrictions

Governor Gretchen Whitmer answers questions from reporters in Traverse City on October 9, 2020.
Dan Wanschura
Interlochen Public Radio
Governor Gretchen Whitmer answers questions from reporters in Traverse City on October 9, 2020.

Less stick. More carrot. That appears to be Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s approach now as Michigan wracks up some of the nation’s worst COVID-19 numbers. 

The governor acknowledges it’s becoming harder to get a restriction-weary public to follow public health orders. So instead, she’s trying to persuade vaccine skeptics to get their shots.   

Last Wednesday, the governor visited Ford Field in Detroit, which currently serves as a mass vaccination site. Whitmer slipped her left arm out of her coat, and took her first Pfizer shot.

“I feel good, she said. "I feel relieved, to be honest.”

The event was timed to start reaching people who are reluctant to get vaccinated while Michigan faces a new surge in infections.

“The problem is fatigue, mobility and variants, and we’ve got all of those things working against us here in Michigan right now," Whitmer said. "What we have to do is really put our foot down on the pedal on vaccines, and implore people to do what we know keeps us safe: masking, distancing, hand-washing.”

The shift in messaging follows political opposition and lawsuits challenging the governor’s continued use of shutdown orders and restrictions.

“For people who are reactant, restrictions can make it worse,” says Ken Resnicow, a PhD and an expert in public health messaging at the University of Michigan.

He says some in the African American community are vaccine hesitant. Then there’s a core group that’s in the “hard no” camp.  That group, he says, is largely made of white evangelical men who are ready to defy government health orders.

“And if you say you must, you should, you have to, they almost biologically want to go in the opposite direction," he says. "We have to be very careful is to respect their independence. That is the number one issue, is that this is an attempt to control me and, therefore, a threat my independence which these people value very highly.”

Exhibit A might be Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.

Last month, the state’s top Republican and Gov. Whitmer nemesis said it’s time to let people make more individual choices on how to respond to the threat of COVID.

“And they’re just waiting to be informed, inspired, encouraged and then trusted, and right now we’re still under an environment where this governor does not trust the citizens of Michigan to do the right thing,” Shirkey said.

But Ken Resnicow says white evangelical conservatives like Shirkey can be reached. He says the messaging has to be focused on their choice to protect their family and their community.

“You have to be very careful to say that this is really up to you, this is an important choice that you can make.”

Resnicow is part of a group of public health experts and professional storytellers in the entertainment industry. The members call themselves the Protector Coalition,

He says the group is working up narratives and storylines to use in ads and TV shows to help create a culture shift across the political spectrum ― one that embraces masks, distancing, and vaccination.

Which is why, in Michigan, as Gov. Whitmer ponders her next move amid the new COVID-19 wave, her first choice is not re-imposing restrictions, but following a new script.