Michigan's health director resigned after the state allowed restaurants to reopen

click to enlarge Robert Gordon. - State of Michigan
State of Michigan
Robert Gordon.

Robert Gordon announced his resignation from his role as director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) on Friday afternoon.

"Today, I am resigning from the Whitmer Administration," Gordon wrote on Twitter. "It's been an honor to serve alongside wonderful colleagues. I look forward to the next chapter."

When asked by Metro Times, Whitmer's office did not give a reason for Gordon's departure.

"Governor Whitmer has accepted Robert Gordon’s resignation," deputy press secretary Chelsea Parisio said in an email. "We don't have anything further to add on this issue."

Earlier on Friday, the state announced it will allow restaurants to reopen for indoor dining in February, citing its progress in controlling the spread of the coronavirus as well as the economic hardships the industry has faced.

But in a press release sent at the time, Gordon cautioned against indoor dining at restaurants.

"Today's announcement is possible because of our progress over the last two months," Gordon said in a statement. "Even so, the science is clear that unmasked, indoor activities like dining and drinking are still a source of high risk around COVID-19. The safest course remains to support your favorite restaurant with carryout, delivery or outdoor dining. If individuals choose to eat out, there are two things they can do to make it much safer: go out only with members of their own household and choose a restaurant participating in the MI COVID-19 Safer Dining certification program."

The sentiment was echoed by Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at MDHHS.

"The safest thing to do is to not eat inside a restaurant," she said.

In a statement, Khaldun said that while the state was allowing restaurants to reopen, she warned that people should remain careful — especially considering a highly contagious mutation of the virus that emerged in the United Kingdom has now been detected in Michigan.

"We are pleased to see the improvements in case rates, hospitalizations and percent positivity that have allowed us to reopen more activities," Khaldun said. "However, we must remain vigilant, especially since we now have a new more easily transmitted variant of this virus present in our state. This is not the time to let our guard down and Michiganders should minimize their risk by avoiding gatherings, wearing masks properly, social distancing and making a plan to get their vaccine when it is their turn."
MDHHS's orders on Nov. 15 to prohibit indoor dining at restaurants were met with resistance from the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association (MRLA), an industry lobbying group that represents more than 5,000 hospitality businesses in the state. In November, the MRLA filed a lawsuit against Gordon in his official capacity as MDHHS director, seeking an emergency preliminary injunction to resume on-premise indoor food and beverage consumption.

MRLA argued that restaurants could safely reopen with restrictions, and said that the orders could force 40% of restaurants to go out of business. The lawsuit also claimed the economic impact of the pandemic could see at least 6,000 Michigan restaurants permanently close by the spring.

According to the lawsuit, about 2,000 restaurants have already closed their doors permanently this year due to the pandemic.

"We have taken this action only after careful deliberation and as the last available option to prevent the outright devastation of restaurant operators and their hundreds of thousands of employees across the state," MRLA President & CEO Justin Winslow said in a statement.

Winslow said the lawsuit came after the MRLA made "several good faith efforts ... to reach a compromise with the MDHHS that would have supported the goal of minimizing risk while still allowing for the continued operation of dining rooms." That included a proposal to reduce capacity in restaurants to 25% and implementing a 10 p.m. curfew.

At the time, Gordon shared a statement with Metro Times about why he believed restaurants needed to be closed.

"Restaurants are at the heart of our communities, and it is deeply unfortunate that the federal government has not stepped up to extend financial relief for them," he said. "Unfortunately, COVID-19 spreads in indoor settings where individuals socialize without masks. ... Targeted and temporary closures that include restaurants have been part of successful strategies for containing COVID surges in Western Europe. Other states are now following this approach, and it is supported by leading public health experts nationwide. "

Gordon also received other threats over the closures. In December, anti-lockdown protesters gathered outside his home.

"This is America, and I believe strongly in Americans’ right to protest," Gordon said in a statement at the time. "Last night was something different: people came to my home in the dark of night, screaming through bullhorns, scaring my children, and trying to intimidate me. That is wrong, and, in case anyone is wondering, it’s a waste of time."

He added, "We are going to keep following the proven, science-based steps to save lives and get Michigan through this pandemic. I know it’s challenging for everyone, especially for small business owners, but it is what is necessary for us to get to the other side with as many of our loved ones as we can."

Whitmer appointed Elizabeth Hertel to take over Gordon's role. Hertel currently serves as the senior chief deputy director for administration for MDHHS.

"Elizabeth Hertel has dedicated her career to protecting Michiganders’ public health, and she is uniquely prepared to lead MDHHS as we continue working together to end the COVID-19 pandemic," Whitmer said in a statement. "She has served across multiple administrations from both parties, and knows how to bring people together to get things done. In her service to the state, she has proven time and again that she will do everything in her power to ensure the health and safety of Michigan families everywhere. Ending the COVID-19 pandemic is going to take hard work and partnership between state government, businesses, and organizations across the state. I know that Elizabeth is ready and eager to start working with partners everywhere to get it done."

"As we work to ramp up distribution of the safe and effective COVID vaccine and end the pandemic, I am eager to work with Governor Whitmer and her administration to keep Michiganders safe and healthy," Hertel said. "I am grateful for the opportunity to lead the department at this time. Michigan is faced with a crisis unlike any we have seen before, but our aggressive action against this virus is working. Let’s finish the job and end the COVID-19 pandemic once and for all."

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About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland “Lee” DeVito is the editor in chief of Detroit Metro Times since 2016. His writing has also been published in Hour Detroit, VICE, In These Times, and New City. He once asked porn star Stormy Daniels to spank him with an issue of Metro Times. She obliged...
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