MDHHS epidemic order restores mask mandate, other restrictions

Coronavirus

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Three days after the Michigan Supreme Court tossed out months of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders related to coronavirus, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services revived several of the same rules with its own emergency order.

The epidemic order signed by MDHHS Director Robert Gorden Monday and in effect through Oct. 30 notably requires masks to be worn in public, including at schools. It sets venue capacity limits for public places in line with those the governor previously mandated.

The order also tells bars they must shut down indoor common areas where people can congregate, dance or mingle. Gatherings are banned anywhere alcohol is sold, except for places where people can be separated by 6 feet.

Student athletes must keep wearing masks during practice and games.

Violators face a misdemeanor charge punishable by six months in jail and a $200 fine, plus a civil fine of up to $1,000.

In a release, state officials said the order is based on a separate law than the one that the state Supreme Court last week ruled unconstitutional. The 1978 law MDHHS is using now gives the state’s public health director the power to take action in the midst of an epidemic.

“Michigan was hit hard by COVID-19 early in the pandemic,” Gordon, the MDHHS director, said in a statement. “Strict preventive measures and the cooperation of Michiganders drove those numbers down dramatically, greatly reducing the loss of life. As we head into flu season, this order is necessary to protect vulnerable individuals, ensure the health care system can provide care for all health issues, keep schools open, and maintain economic recovery.”

The Michigan Supreme Court on Friday struck down Whitmer’s executive orders designed to control the spread of the coronavirus after justices voted 4-3 that the 1945 law on which she was basing them was unconstitutional.

The move from Whitmer’s administration to continue its coronavirus mitigation response was not unexpected, though it was unclear how it would happen.

“We’re really seeking to make sure that we’ve got a plan for every individual thing that we were doing and determine under what authority we can move forward or if there’s another way we have to move to address them,” Whitmer said Monday morning, speaking to reporters at a campaign event for state House candidates near Flint. “As you know, there are a lot of different pieces to the COVID(-19) response that we’ve had in Michigan. It’s been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved and the strength that our economy is in right now. All of that’s in jeopardy.”

“We know that the fallout from the Supreme Court determination — the slim majority on a party-line vote… — is still being ascertained. We are studying it to make sure that where we can act, we do; where there are gaps to be filled that we work to do that, as well,” Whitmer continued. “I think it’s premature to tell you exactly how everything is going to play out, but we’re working to keep people safe. And I am by no means … finished trying to protect the people of this state.”

Whitmer said the initial information she got was that her executive orders would remain in effect for 21 days. On Monday, her lawyers asked the court to allow the orders to continue until Oct. 30.

In a release, Whitmer warned that immediate effect of the Supreme Court ruling could cost some families their unemployment benefits under expanded eligibility and eased approval requirements granted by one of her executive orders. She said a transition period would allow officials to come up with a plan to continue those benefits.

The governor, a Democrat, said her staff has been contact with staff for the Republicans who control Michigan’s Legislature to determine what will happen next. In a statement, she said she was prepared to work with them but also that “it’s time for Republicans in the Legislature to get to work and start showing that they are taking this crisis seriously.”

“They (the state House and Senate) only have a couple of days on the calendar between now and the election,” Whitmer told reporters. “So they may have to rearrange their calendars and get back to Lansing.”

In an afternoon virtual press conference with reporters, Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said the Legislature would be coming back to work on coronavirus response — though he was not yet prepared to provide a schedule. He added that Republicans were ready to work with the governor but would not provide specifics on what measures lawmakers would vote on. He was also not prepared to say whether he agreed that the MDHHS director’s epidemic orders were still in effect.

“This (the Supreme Court ruling) should be a message to the governor: We have to cooperate. This should be a message to the governor: We have to negotiate,” Chatfield said. “So I don’t think now is the time to circumvent the law again. I don’t think now is the time to attempt to circumvent the constitution again and even now circumvent the Michigan Supreme Court. Now is the time to finally accept our hand in partnership and begin negotiating with the Legislature.”

He advocated for a regional approach to mitigation efforts.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, told Bridge Michigan magazine over the weekend that he and his fellow Republicans had no “appetite” to issue a statewide mask mandate. Their focus, he said, would be less on requirements and more on education and encouragement of following health safety protocols.

Asked by the Associated Press whether he would support a mask mandate, Chatfield said, “I’m not really certain the question has much merit considering the opinions that have been given by the Senate.”

Whitmer is sure to push for a more comprehensive and structured response.

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court in May tossed out its Democratic governor’s statewide plan to confront the virus after that state’s Republican-led legislature challenged it. It is now seeing a surge in cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Wisconsin reported 17,000 cases in a single week and hospital administrators told WOOD TV8’s Green Bay sister station they are reaching capacity.

“We’re losing people,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers told WFRV. “The death rate is increasing. This is the time to double down as a state. We cannot afford to let this rage out of control.”

The outbreak in Wisconsin has spilled into the Upper Peninsula, causing Whitmer on Friday to push the region back a reopening phase.

“Wisconsin dropped their guard and they are the national hot spot,” she said Monday morning. “I’m hopeful that the people of Michigan keep doing what we need to do. We’ve shown that we know how to keep this virus from community spread. It’s wearing a mask, it is physical distancing, it’s washing our hands.”

—News 8’s Lynsey Mukomel contributed to this report.

  

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