News Story

Landscapers Unlocked; Still Miffed Government Work Was Allowed But Not Private

‘It’s a double standard for the government’

Prior to Friday’s announcement that the state of Michigan will lift most restrictions on private sector landscapers, many landscapers had been growing increasingly anxious about the impact on their businesses. These locked-down workers and employers were also bothered by one segment of the industry that had been able to keep working: The businesses that have contracts to provide state government infrastructure.

Derek King, a Calhoun County commissioner and local business owner, saw this firsthand last week. Just several days after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer tightened prohibitions on nongovernmental landscape workers, he saw a landscape crew near his home installing trees and spreading mulch at a bridge reconstruction project over the Kalamazoo River.

King posted his observations on Facebook, with the comment, “I just wanted to give a huge shout out to the State for the awesome job and attention to detail when planting these trees. ...”

In an interview, King said his comment was lighthearted and he is pleased that Michigan Department of Transportation’s contractors were allowed to keep working. But when state officials made an exception for state projects while banning all others, it seemed to him a bit like “thumbing their nose at all the local (landscape) contractors that are sitting at home.”

MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson said in an email Thursday: “A lot of what MDOT contractors do that might be broadly considered ‘landscaping,’ is actually slope restoration, wetlands mitigation and other things that involve planting trees or something else to prevent erosion that leads to sediment getting into roads, waterways or drains.”

Much of the department’s landscaping work was suspended last week, he said, but the tree planting along M-311 in Calhoun County is considered slope restoration and erosion control.

According to the Michigan Department of Transportation website, road and bridge “contractors are deemed critical infrastructure workers and will proceed with state trunkline projects. Contractors have been briefed on the appropriate safety mentors to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

King said the latter assertion cannot be confirmed from his observation of the crew planting the riverbank trees: “I didn’t see much social distancing going on,” he said.

Nor is it obvious that the newly planted trees and mulch will control erosion, King said. Many of the trees planted on the site, he said, appear to serve as simple replacements for mature trees that were felled to accommodate bridge construction.

The more important issue, King said, is that contractors who have been working on substantially similar projects for private sector clients were prohibited from doing so.

“It’s a double standard for the government,” he said.

On Friday, Whitmer announced a relaxation of some pandemic-related restrictions, including bans on motorized boating, paint and garden sales – and landscaping, subject to “social distancing” protocols.