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Whitmer turns to persuasion over COVID restrictions

Gretchen Whitmer wearing black mask in pink coat receives shot from doctor in white coat.
State of Michigan

Michigan is facing some of the nation’s worst COVID-19 numbers. Governor Gretchen Whitmer acknowledges it’s becoming harder to get a restriction-weary public to follow health orders.

So, instead, she’s trying to persuade vaccine skeptics to get their shots.

Less stick. More carrot. That appears to be Whitmer’s approach now. 

On 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’m done,” she says. “That’s it.”

A reporter asks her, “how’d it feel?”

“Good. I feel good. 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 says. “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,” Resnicow says. “We have to be very careful as 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.

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

“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.”

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 Whitmer ponders her next move amid the new COVID wave, her first choice is not re-imposing restrictions, but following a new script.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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