Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer had become the poster child for oppressive lockdown orders during the pandemic. Her over-the-top orders restricting the movement of citizens – even between private residences that they own – were seen as examples of the worst authoritarian impulses by elected executive officials. But now it seems that those days are coming to an end. Despite the fact that the virus is still out there and flaring up in some places, Whitmer announced yesterday that the lockdown is basically over and people can largely resume their normal activities provided they observe social distancing rules. (Reuters)

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Monday moved to further reopen the Midwest state’s economy, largely rescinding a stay-at- home order in place since March and allowing retailers and restaurants to open back up over the next week.

Whitmer’s new executive order will allow retailers to reopen on Thursday and restaurants on June 8, both subject to capacity limits. Effective immediately, groups of 100 or less will be allowed to gather outdoors with social distancing and office work that cannot be done remotely can resume.

“The data has shown that we are ready to carefully move our state into the next phase,” Whitmer said in a statement. “While Michiganders are no longer required to stay home, we must all continue to be smart and practice social distancing.”

I’m sure many Michiganders will be relieved to hear this news and begin getting back to whatever passes for “normal” these days. But at the same time, they are no doubt being left with plenty of questions as we all should be.

One thing we know for sure is that the virus is still out there. We definitely “flattened the curve” in some of our most densely populated areas and drove the daily number of deaths, hospitalizations and new cases down considerably. (Which is great, obviously.) But it’s going to take a very long time before we can get even a significant minority of the country’s entire population tested for both the virus and the presence of antibodies in their system, with the latter suggesting the person already had the disease and recovered. We may never reach 100% testing.

With that in mind, if we can return to work and gatherings now while observing social distancing protocols, why couldn’t we have done that a week ago? Or a month ago? It’s kind of hard to shake the feeling that all we really needed to do was shut down long enough for businesses, schools and all the rest to restructure their environments to allow six feet of space between people, stagger egress and ingress, and require facemasks on the premises. And then we could have opened the country up as soon as everyone was in compliance, couldn’t we?

I’m not saying that process is either cheap or easy. We’ve spent a long time working off a model that encouraged packing people in as closely as possible to cut down on costs. But if it’s a choice between that or catching a potentially fatal disease that’s probably going to be with us for a very long time, it’s a pretty easy call.

And that possibility brings us back to a question that many of us were asking when all of these lockdowns and social distancing orders were originally put in place. This may not be an issue of when all of this ends, but if it ever ends. Are we now just a society that’s going to keep our distance from each other in all circumstances outside the home and forgo shaking hands, hugging or other physical contact permanently? After all, even if we do somehow wipe out this virus and/or make every person in the country immune, there’s always going to be another virus coming along sooner or later.

It’s a rather alarming prospect and a vast change to centuries of social customs. But then, it would probably take only one generation before the old ways are forgotten. I’m still not sure how I feel about this.