When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released her plan for loosening COVID-based restrictions on May 7, 2020, after the near-complete lockdown, she assured the public that her decisions were based on science and facts. She added, “The most important thing right now is to listen to the experts and follow the medical science.” And, “Our Safe Start Plan has been guided by the state’s top public health and university experts. …”
Seeking to better understand how the governor created her plan, the Mackinac Center submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the University of Michigan, asking for emails between university experts and key state officials. In response, the university withheld much of the requested information, saying it was part of official deliberations and thus exempt from FOIA requirements. The public’s right to know, it said, was secondary to public officials’ need to be able to collaborate in relative secrecy. The Mackinac Center filed a lawsuit, and the judge sided with us. “[The Mackinac Center],” the judge wrote, “has convincingly argued that the public release of information that may have influenced actions taken by government employees and officials during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic is a matter of potentially significant public interest.”
The judge ordered U-M to release the documents, which revealed that the experts’ advice was often guided more by political calculations than by science and facts. How many children could a child care facility serve, for example? The answer took into account the economics of child care. Could facilities effectively operate with smaller groups of children? Could they survive new state- mandated expenses such as touchless trash cans? It is reasonable to consider such questions, but the experts acknowledged that they did not give similar consideration to other businesses. In short, certain businesses were given favorable treatment, and it appears that political lobbying played into this. One expert noted that further restrictions on restaurants might not “see the light of day” because “(i) we already have rules out and (ii) restaurants don’t like them.”
Furthermore, the communications showed other examples of experts simply making educated guesses. Given that these discussions took place early on in the pandemic, this might have been expected. But state officials often acted as if questioning the policies was an impermissible questioning of science. And it is now clear that the science was lacking or often did not exist.