In mid-November of 2020, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a COVID-19 “Pause to Save Lives” plan. This order was initiated and instituted under the authority of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in contrast to previous COVID-19 guidelines enacted by executive orders under Governor Whitmer. These were stopped by a successful lawsuit in which the Michigan Courts ruled Whitmer’s orders unconstitutional by order of state constitution and law.
The ordered pause instituted restrictions and guidelines weaker than the previous stay-at-home order, yet more restrictive than the past few months. Some of the restrictions included cancelling all in-person learning, group fitness activities, indoor dining and more. This caused Hope College to shift to remote learning for fall semester final exams and stopped many Hope sports teams from having a fall season.
As the holiday season progressed, many restrictions were lifted and altered with the exception of contact sports. While professional and collegiate teams were granted more liberty in their practices and gatherings, high school athletics and sports leagues across the state were at a standstill, causing an uproar among many youth sports supporters.
Many argued that the State of Michigan’s continued restrictions were baseless. These arguments coalesced into a movement that grew under the slogan “Let Us Play,” advocating that children returning to sports is necessary and crucial in overall wellness. Guidelines instated previous to the pause involved testing of all athletes which yielded a negative rate of 99.8%, coupled with intense sanitization and other preventative measures. Proponents of sports continuance stated that this was more than enough in terms of precaution.
When the state initially pushed back the return of contact sports from February 1 to February 21, frustration came to a boiling point and protestors arrived at the Capitol building in Lansing. Around 2,000 people including student athletes, parents, and coaches partook in a peaceful protest urging the state to reconsider its stance. Leaders and organizers insisted that the demonstration remain peaceful and void of any partisan messages, discouraging political flags and displays along that nature. A nice difference from other organized protests, this sentiment seemed to be followed at the demonstration.
Bill Huizenga, a Republican Congressman representing Holland and Michigan’s 2nd congressional district spoke before the demonstrators. Representative Huizenga addressed the negative mental health implications associated with student athletes and the discontinuation of the sports season. While many applauded his speech citing the recent suicide-related crises, others criticized the statement. They argued that the connection between the two was not factually accurate and was made as a purely partisan move, as Bill Huizenga has been a staunch critic of Governor Whitmer since the start of the pandemic.
Governor Whitmer and the state’s response to this peaceful protest included continued public health concerns. They stated that the pause of sports was integral to mitigating the spread and saving lives, mentioning the critical importance of protecting healthcare workers and immunocompromised residents of Michigan.
Many called this claim inaccurate and pointed out that it lacked the support of data and statistics. Most recent COVID-19 metrics in Michigan have shown a substantial decrease in infections, deaths and hospitalizations, which are all optimistic indicators for the public, especially when coupled with the increase in vaccine distribution.
More optimism was generated from those involved in the “Let Us Play” movement when Governor Whitmer released this statement in early February:
“Now, starting February 8, contact sports can resume with safety measures in place. Michigan continues to be a national leader in fighting this virus, and we must continue using a fact-based approach so we can return to a strong economy and normal day-to-day activities. One of the most important things Michiganders can do is to make a plan to get the safe and effective vaccine when it’s available to you. And as always, mask up and maintain six feet of social distancing. We all have a personal responsibility to slow the spread of the virus so we can end this pandemic together.”
Governor Whitmer also acknowledged the positive COVID-19 statistics that much of the opposition previously cited.
“We continue to make progress in reducing cases and hospitalizations, helping protect our families and frontline workers and saving lives..”
The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) released a statement addressing the governmental order, in which officials were excited and grateful for the return to high school sports competitions. High school teams have been permitted to practice since January 16.
Tournament dates, including state championship dates, have been pushed back into April for winter sports in response to the postponement of the season. Winter sports regulated through the MHSAA include boys and girls basketball, wrestling, competitive cheer, ice hockey and ski racing.