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by Ben Solis, Staff Writer

Michigan Ranked As Third Best State To Visit In The Fall

Posted: October 15, 2020 3:13 PM

With its vast array of forests and foliage, serene lakes and a surplus of adventurous outdoor activities, it is hardly a surprise to any self-respecting Michigander that our state would rank among the best places in the nation to visit during the fall season.

That's according to LawnStarter.com, which ranked 47 states in several categories to determine the best for a cozy and awe-inspiring autumn visit. The website left out the west coast states of Washington, Oregon and California due to the ongoing wildfires.

Overall, Michigan was No. 3 on their list, just behind New York in the top slot and Alaska taking second place. But of course, we know in our lake-blue heart of hearts that Michigan reigns supreme.

In individual categories, Michigan's fall entertainment received a solid No. 3 rank but barely fell into the Top 10 in terms of parks and forests at No. 9. Yard sizes in Michigan ranked at No. 12 while its natural hazards ranked at No. 11.

For those keeping score with our brethren and sistren in the Midwest, Ohio's overall rank was sixth place, Wisconsin was ranked seventh, Illinois ranked eighth and Minnesota took No. 16 overall. For any Hoosier expats reading at home, Indiana didn't fare as well coming in at 18th.

And while we routed Ohio in overall rank, Ohio beat us by a hair in terms of most pumpkin patches per state – we were at No. 3 while Ohio hailed at No. 2. I attribute that to our southern neighbor's affection for the color orange, but that could just be the Cleveland Browns fan in me talking (remember, I'm not originally from here).

One major affront, though, to Michigan was its trail ranking at 19th place. That means it also didn't appear on lists for most or fewest hiking trails. Fair enough, but I'd argue that you haven't really lived until you've hiked the trails that run through the Upper Peninsula's mighty Tahquamenon Falls State Park – among my favorite destinations in Michigan.

Michigan also failed to appear on the most and fewest scenic drives list, which again, I doubt the fine people at LawnStarter took the time to drive northbound on I-75 this fall, culminating in the crossing of the gloriously scenic Mackinac Bridge – a journey that should have been enough to take the whole pot.

Another notable curveball was Michigan's appearance, or lack thereof, on rank lists for highest and lowest hurricane risk. Puzzling to not have taken the top spot on the lowest risk ledger, as I've never heard of a hurricane landing on Michigan.

But The National Weather Service paints a clearer picture on this one. Although hurricanes by definition have never landed or formed on the Great Lakes, the remnants of hurricanes touching down in the south and northeast have indeed made their way to the Great Lakes region, so there's that.

Have I taken far greater offense to this list than pride? Probably, but only because my adopted home deserves, in my humble opinion, the highest of ranks when considering all it has to offer in the autumn season.

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A Reporter's Perspective On Seeking A COVID-19 Test – Twice

Posted: June 25, 2020 12:11 PM

Living under the cloud of the new coronavirus has been harrowing for most, deadly for some and disruptive to many more, but one thing is for certain – we have come a long way since those early days in March when the virus reared its ugly head in Michigan.

Most notable is the fact that diagnostic testing for the virus that causes COVID-19 has dramatically expanded in scale and scope. It's a sweep I've witnessed first-hand reporting on the Department of Health and Human Services as my primary beat for the last four months.

But my connection to diagnostic COVID-19 testing is more personal than professional. I have twice been concerned about being exposed to the virus, once by my mother, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March, and another when I visited an emergency room this month for non-COVID-19 health issues.

In the those early days of the pandemic, testing for the general public was hard to come by: supplies were limited, hospitals were selective and if you hadn't traveled or exhibited the worst possible symptoms, you simply weren't receiving a test.

That was the case in March, when weeks before Governor Gretchen Whitmer's statewide lockdown, I had been traveling back and forth from my home in Muskegon to Lansing and my parent's home in Canton Township. I was sure that I had been exposed by constantly visiting my folks. My wife and I both exhibited symptoms. But outside of an antigen test, we'll never know if we actually had it.

Fast forward to early June when a heart scare sent me reluctantly to the hospital. Despite seemingly robust hospital COVID-19 protocols – masks, gloves, plastic shields at the reception desk – my wife and I had a week later been stricken ill with similar respiratory symptoms.

This time, mass testing was much more accessible, and I was able to get a diagnostic test within a day of requesting one.

I tested negative, thankfully.

As I prepare to return to downtown Lansing after months of working from home and self-isolating from society for the good of it and my family, I continue to reflect on – politics aside – how much testing improved from March to June.

Much more needs to be done to ensure our overall safety, but for now, if I feel ill, I'll have a knowing comfort that was markedly absent when fear of the virus was at its peak in March.

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Anti-Trump Groups Trying To Court Wayward Conservatives

Posted: May 28, 2020 4:17 PM

If you're a current or former Republican who has left the party or is considering voting for Joe Biden in the fall, several conservative anti-President Donald Trump groups want you to know that you're not alone.

That was the message shared this week during a virtual teleconference hosted by The Lincoln Project, one notable and novel group hoping to convert and court wayward conservatives away from Mr. Trump in November.

The group met with supporters Tuesday over Zoom to discuss strategy and the road ahead, with a slight focus on Mr. Trump's impending battle to keep Michigan red. And while the group showed it was organizationally ready for the fight ahead, much of the meeting acted as a vent for frustrations and concerns, especially for the conversation's panelists (See Gongwer Michigan Report, May 26, 2020)

In many ways, the Tuesday call felt more like group therapy for the disaffected, and maybe that's part of the strategy. Project co-founder George Conway – a stalwart Trump contrarian and husband to the president's advisor, Kellyanne Conway – said the only way to defeat the president at the ballot box was to constantly remind his fellow conservatives of Mr. Trump's various missteps.

Jeff Timmer, the former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party and lifelong GOP strategist, has been castigating Mr. Trump for the better part of the last four years. Mr. Timmer clearly abhors Mr. Trump, but he is equally disappointed with his party for accepting what he called "buffoonery" on behalf of the Trump administration.

In many ways, Republicans like Mr. Timmer offer a visible challenge to Mr. Trump's prospects in places like Michigan, but how effective they will be on a national scale remains a mystery. By all accounts Mr. Trump is massively popular among voters who identify as Republicans and the Conways and Timmers of the world are isolated.

Beating Mr. Trump, as Mr. Conway and Mr. Timmer noted, will rely on constant reminders to the lapsed that they aren't alone in their misgivings about the president. It may also rely on more high-profile Republicans standing up to the president, an occurrence that has been few and far between over the last four years of the Trump presidency.

Mr. Timmer addressed that during the call. While most want to avoid "the daily shitshow," he said, they may feel trapped into cajoling the president to protect their election prospects. Mr. Timmer contended that it was an unfortunate situation for those who behind closed doors say they despise Mr. Trump but go on to defend and support him when politically convenient.

While Mr. Trump may act erratically and not know better, Mr. Timmer contends that the GOP does and was once better than what he said they've become in the age of Trump – another key part of the Lincoln Project's core message.

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Bernstein On Difficulties Of The Pandemic For People With Disabilities

Posted: May 15, 2020 3:15 PM

Several years ago, while visiting New York City, Justice Richard Bernstein was involved in a catastrophic accident. A bicyclist had hit him in Central Park and he was hospitalized in Mount Sinai for more than 10 weeks.

The physical pain, he said, was excruciating, but the constant interaction with doctors and nurses uplifted his spirit. Human connection, he'll tell you, is what helps Mr. Bernstein thrive and survive in a world without sight.

With that in mind, the Supreme Court justice told me this week that the accident in New York, one that saw him hospitalized for more than two months, was in some ways more tolerable than the strange new world invoked by the presence of the new coronavirus.

"Even though I was in horrible physical pain, there was life," Mr. Bernstein told me. "There were visitors and people. There was such wonderful commotion. People brought instruments and played music. That was easier than this because there were so many people in my room. This inability to have that connectivity with people is, for someone like myself, it's hard to describe the difficulties that come along with it."

Over the period of an hour, Mr. Bernstein and I discussed his transition to an all-virtual work environment and what that means for his experience as a blind professional navigating an unknown world.

But the bulk of the conversation hinged on his personal experience as a blind man dealing with the strain of isolation, a circumstance that runs counter the way he's lived his entire life thus far.

For him, the energy of a bustling subway station or a crowded restaurant fuels his spirit. A meaningful connection with someone, even if just for a few minutes, he said, is literally how he understands the entire universe.

Being deprived of interaction with people – which he said was one of the main things that keeps him happy and spiritually healthy – has been a uniquely painful experience. There's also the fact that many of the ways we've all been interacting with the outside word, everything from food delivery apps, telemedicine and Zoom calls to colleagues, family and friends, are by and large inaccessible to some people with physical disabilities.

Mr. Bernstein asked me to specifically highlight those difficulties in an upcoming feature story. He hoped that our conversation could influence Lansing lawmakers and business owners to better understand how hard this has been particularly on people with disabilities.

I was happy to oblige, because it's a story that can easily get lost in the constant flow of news surrounding the pandemic, and most of all, because people with disabilities deserve a voice in how the state responds to COVID-19.

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MI Courts Made Wide Leaps In Innovation During COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted: April 23, 2020 2:36 PM

Despite the inherent hardships the new coronavirus outbreak has imposed on residents and state government, the courts have risen to the challenge by making leaps in innovation that it otherwise may have rejected in a pre-COVID-19 world.

That's what Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack told me in an interview earlier today. We discussed how her court and the lower courts have been handling the crisis and what she means when she says that the COVID-19 crisis was the disruption the courts needed to embrace much-needed change.

"Lawyers and judges for lots of cultural reasons, some traditional reasons, for some fundamental values reasons are slow to change and innovate," Ms. McCormack said. "We're not necessarily known as being an agile industry, and as a result we've been able to resist a lot of innovation that's come for other industries."

The innovation in question is the judiciary's transition toward holding its proceedings online through videoconference tools like Zoom. In the case of the Supreme Court, Ms. McCormack and her colleagues have been holding oral arguments on the platform and livestreaming them on YouTube for all to see.

The Supreme Court plans to hold oral arguments via Zoom and broadcast to YouTube for the third time on May 6.

Ms. McCormack said the courts have had the technology to take its business into a virtual setting for some time, but those traditions and cultural barriers prevented them from making a court-wide jump into using them fulltime.

My upcoming piece in Thursday's Michigan Report goes into greater detail about the experience thus far and some of the challenges that have arisen in the process. Ms. McCormack also explains why the judiciary will continue the path of holding virtual court in some capacity once the pandemic crisis is over.

But overall, the switch to virtual proceedings has been a smooth transition, and the judiciary's ability to immediately change how it operates says a lot about how equipped the courts were to make that change in the first place.

In a tweet, the Supreme Court on Thursday highlighted the fact that through April 1 *and April 17*, Michigan's trial courts held more than 6,800 hearings remotely for a total of nearly 30,000 hours of proceedings.

Considering Ms. McCormack has long since been an advocate for criminal justice reform, it makes sense that she would be as open to if not a driving force behind the virtual solutions that have kept the courts open to the public through a harrowing and difficult set of circumstances.

It is commendable that access to this vital institution remains for the most part unimpeded by a public health crisis that has upended almost every facet of our daily lives.

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Detroit's Density, Lab Capacity A Likely Reason For High COVID-19 Cases

Posted: March 26, 2020 9:33 PM

Detroit continues to have a disproportionately high number of new and cumulative coronavirus cases, and Detroit's chief medical expert isn't entirely sure why.

Detroiters make up about 7 percent of the state's population. But they make up 31 percent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases.

A definitive answer remains elusive in part because the Detroit Health Department doesn't yet know whether the numbers are being driven by mass community spread or the glut of available testing labs in hospitals or private lab settings, said the department's chief epidemiologist, Dr. Carla Bezold.

"We've only begun to see cases over the last two weeks," Ms. Bezold said. "The increased availability of testing has allowed us to more broadly identify cases, and we will continue to work in the weeks ahead to better understand what the numbers mean."

However, an official with the Michigan Health and Hospital Association suggests that Detroit's dense population – about one-third of Wayne County – makes the city a natural hotspot for the spread of the COVID-19. An association spokesperson suggests that the robust hospital capacity in southeast Michigan and its various new COVID-19 testing labs are a reason the region is seeing a higher number of reported cases.

The city's COVID-19 case count is tallied separately from the rest of Wayne County because of its large and autonomous health department. As of 10 a.m. Monday, Detroit had 411 total cases, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (see separate story).

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said during an afternoon press conference that the number was closer to 414. Since the DHHS started chronicling COVID-19 deaths last week on its designated outbreak information website, the city has suffered six of the 15 COVID-19 deaths reported across the state.

In all, Wayne County has seen 688 COVID-19 cases and eight reported deaths. Additionally, other southeast Michigan counties have posted high confirmed COVID-19 case numbers, such as Oakland County and Macomb County at 329 and 175, respectively.

Testing is ramping up as hospital and private labs come online, and the state can now test 1,000 samples a day, said DHHS Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun during a Monday press conference.

That begs the question: is Detroit seeing more COVID-19 cases because there are more tests being completed in the city as opposed to other parts of the state? Or is the community spread of COVID-19 occurring there at a higher rate?

At present, hospitals also do not have any state-based epidemiological evidence pointing to why southeast Michigan is seeing higher numbers of COVID-19 cases, said Ruthanne Sudderth, senior vice president of public affairs and communications with the MHA.

However, as seen in other countries and localities across the globe, population density appears to contribute to faster community spread, Ms. Sudderth added.

"This is why staying home is so critical," she said, referencing Governor Gretchen Whitmer's Monday executive order to compel residents to stay home until April 13 (see separate story).

Additionally, Ms. Sudderth pointed to the region's large hospital capacity and its various COVID-19 labs. More testing capabilities mean more confirmed cases, she added.

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DHHS Rethinking Teen Anti-Marijuana Ad Campaign After Backlash

Posted: January 23, 2020 4:59 PM

An advertising campaign aimed at addressing health risks for youth who choose to use marijuana has been put on hold following backlash over what some marijuana industry folk called a misrepresentation of responsible marijuana users.

Now, the Department of Health and Human Services is retooling the campaign to not "stigmatize adults who are using marijuana," department spokesperson Lynn Sutfin told Gongwer News Service on Thursday.

DHHS started producing several short videos in December to "address a health risk that is well-documented among youth marijuana (users)," a department spokesperson said. About $300,000 in funding was allocated to the campaign from a Substance Abuse and Treatment Block Grant and approximately $100,000 was spent on focus groups, ad production and agency fees.

But the campaign, which depicted marijuana users as obese men trying to deter younger version of themselves from smoking grass, was met with backlash from the public and marijuana industry leaders.

Rick Thompson, the owner of the Michigan Cannabis Business Development Group, told the City Pulse that the ads used "inappropriate and well-disproven tropes about cannabis."

Subsequently, DHHS removed at least five ads from YouTube and social media, but not before they disabled the comments, the City Pulse reports.

The TV ad buy has been paused for the time being until the department can figure out "how to craft the most effective, research-based messaging possible for this campaign in support of our goal," a department spokesperson said.

Department officials have not made any decisions yet on where to take the campaign following the flop, but they are determining how money for a new campaign will be spent.

Meanwhile, the reaction to the ads seem to point to an increased awareness among Michigan residents about the real and perceived dangers of cannabis use.

Mr. Thompson told the City Pulse that he was encouraged by the backlash and called it an example of "the public rising up over an issue and the government responding."

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Cell Phone Allowance In Courts A Blessing For Reporters, The Public

Posted: January 16, 2020 4:56 PM

As I sat in U.S. District Court today for a hearing on the U.S. government's case against Rep. Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg), I realized how much I've relied on my cell phone while committing what an esteemed colleague of mine refers to as "acts of journalism."

Simple tasks like recording proceedings to snapping pictures or accessing the Internet are essential in many ways to accurately reporting events and meetings. In U.S. District Court, I was barred from using my cell phone entirely, and in some courts around the state, similar restrictions apply in varying degrees of strictness.

That's why the Supreme Court's mandate to allow the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in all Michigan courthouses is a blessing – not just for court reporters like me, but for the public as well.

New rules adopted by the high court last week state that cell phones and electronic devices will be allowed in all Michigan courthouses and courtrooms starting May 1, amending MCR 8.115 to set a new statewide policy standard. Policies on cell phones and devices previously varied widely from court to court.

Aside from allowing cell phones and devices, the new rules state members of the public can now use their devices to take photographs of court documents. Courts have had a reputation for charging exorbitant copying fees for records of $1, $1.50 and even $2 per page.

Cell phones and devices may be used to retrieve and store information, access the Internet and send and receive text messages only if the phone – and its user – remains silent. The rules also allow the public to reproduce court documents only if the device leaves no marks and does not interfere with the operation of the clerk's office.

Proceedings cannot be recorded without the permission of a judge, and the same goes for people in the courtroom, who cannot be photographed or recorded without their prior consent. I as a reporter would still need get special clearance from a judge to record court proceedings.

But the bit about taking photos is significant.

I once paid $92 for a court file because the complex nature of the case made notetaking with pen and paper a ridiculous waste of my time. It was a charge that I could have easily avoided if the court had just let me take photos of the documents I needed.

The newspaper I worked for was gracious enough to reimburse the cost, but it was a luxury that many working people who find themselves as plaintiffs or defendants before the court don't have.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack said as much in a statement last week when the rule change was announced. Ms. McCormack recognized the significant financial barrier restrictions on cell phone photography, especially for those who choose to represent themselves in court.

Access to the courts is a fundamental right in a free and democratic society.

Even if some courts lose money or find themselves faced with a new nuisance of people using their phones during proceedings.

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As A Self-Professed News Geek, Political Reporting Is A Dream-Come-True

Posted: January 9, 2020 5:19 PM

My earliest childhood memories involve my brother and I huddled around a TV set with my doting parents taking in some sort of wonky documentary or the latest national and international news.

Political news has always been a fixture of my life, as it was incumbent upon my parents to raise children that were not only aware of the world around them, but aware of how the policies set forth by government and political leaders shaped our lives.

I owe a lot of my career as a journalist to my parents, the comic books I read where journalists were the heroes and to those early introductions to political processes.

If you didn't get a chance to read the article produced earlier this week, my name is Ben Solis and I'm a new staff writer at Gongwer News Service. I'll be covering the judiciary and the Supreme Court, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Insurance and Financial Services.

You'll also see me tackling stories about the Redistricting Commission and the 2020 presidential election.

For the last two years, my wife Emily and I lived in Muskegon, where I covered local government, elections, public safety, courts and breaking news with MLive.com. Before that, I interned at the Muskegon Chronicle, The Ann Arbor News and MLive's Detroit office.

In college, I worked in various roles – including editor in chief – at Central Michigan Life, the renowned student newspaper of Central Michigan University.

Music is my second love, and I prefer listening to it on physical mediums like records and cassette tapes. I could talk for hours about classic groups and newer fare, and likely will do so if I'm not on deadline.

I carry the curse of being born near Cleveland and I am irrationally loyal to northeast Ohio sports teams – a cruel existence to which I know many Lions, Pistons and Tigers fans can relate.

Don't worry, I hate Ohio State as much as you do, and the Spartans have always been my favorite college sports team. As soon as I'm settled, I plan to worship at the altar of Tom Izzo at the hallowed Breslin Student Events Center.

You can contact me at bsolis@gongwer.com and can follow me on Twitter @bensolis1. I love a good news tip and an even better cup of coffee, so please don't hesitate to reach out.

I come to Lansing grateful and humbled to work for Gongwer and for the opportunity to cover the state's core branches of government.

My new gig fulfills the longtime dream of a self-professed news geek who spends much of his time boring his wife and friends debating about public policy and elections.

I'm hoping that means I'll fit in here well.

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