House GOP rolls out COVID-19 plan, open to mask mandate opt-out

By: - October 20, 2020 12:47 pm

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

House Republicans, in an attempt to replace what they are calling “an environment of geographic captivity” under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s now-defunct executive orders, have introduced their own plan to manage Michigan’s worsening COVID-19 outbreak.

That would involve letting individual counties make their own public health decisions, including whether or not to enforce a mask mandate. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) recently issued an emergency order requiring face masks at indoor and outdoor gatherings, and for businesses to uphold the rule on their premises. 

Rep. Ben Frederick at the House GOP press conference on COVID-19 | House GOP photo

Protective face masks are the most efficient way for everyday Americans to prevent COVID-19 transmission, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Michigan has almost 148,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 7,000 deaths. Last week, the state broke a record in reporting more than 2,000 cases in a single day. Most states are posting high coronavirus numbers as experts warn about a second wave.

The House GOP’s “Comeback Roadmap” plan was introduced at a press conference Tuesday morning by a group of Republican state representatives including state Reps. Ben Frederick (R-Owosso), Julie Calley (R-Portland) and Graham Filler (R-DeWitt), who all argued their plan is based on best scientific practices and would provide better transparency than Whitmer’s actions.

“This proposal calls for a publicly disclosed set of metrics which would allow a county public health director the option to modify existing state orders, which reflect[s] the needs of a county,” Frederick said.

Whitmer’s management of the state’s COVID-19 outbreak has been praised by health officials for containing the virus better than many other states, but derided from the start by Republicans who argue that the executive orders were too restrictive and Whitmer’s administration not transparent enough.

On Oct. 2, those executive powers were voided after the Michigan Supreme Court’s GOP majority struck down Whitmer’s use of two laws she had been leaning on for emergency powers.

House Republicans claimed Tuesday that their roadmap for Michigan’s recovery is “based on science, not on politics,” but still took jabs at Whitmer’s previous policies throughout the press conference.

The plan, which builds upon ideas first introduced by Republicans in April, would allow local public health directors to loosen restrictions on gathering sizes, restaurant capacity and more in their county “when the data supports it.”

Supporting data would be based on five metrics: Case rate, positivity rate, surge and hospital capacity, sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) supply and ability to test for COVID-19.

Local health directors could make decisions overriding state policies if these requirements are met:

  • The number of confirmed community spread cases over a 14-day period is less than 55 cases per 1 million people
  • The rate of positive tests related to community spread over a 14-day period is below 5%
  • Hospitals are able to handle a 20% surge in admissions or patient transfers, and are below a 25% hospitalization increase in the previous 14 days
  • Local health facilities have at least a two-week supply of PPE on hand
  • Counties are able to test 15 people per 10,000 residents per day, and turn around test results in three days or less

The lawmakers said the metrics must be publicly available on online dashboards, so the public could see what decision-making goes into policy directives.

The only mention of masks came in response to a media question from Crain’s Detroit about counties being able to opt out of mask mandates in public-facing businesses.

“Not requiring that; that’s a possibility,” Frederick said. “I would point out that there’s already a differentiation on face coverings within the Return to Learn plan [for schools] itself, where different districts have flexibility in different ways and how they handle that policy based upon prevailing conditions.”

GOP leaders have not required lawmakers to wear masks at the Capitol. Several lawmakers, including state Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain), state. Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) and state Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville), have had coronavirus. State Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) died of a suspected COVID-19 infection in March.

The Michigan State Medical Society (MSMS) released a statement Tuesday in response to the plan, with president Bobby Mukkamala writing that Michigan physicians are “eager to help in the development of these metrics” and the MSMS appreciates being consulted on the plan.

“In the meantime, we can all do our part by wearing a mask, washing our hands, and maintaining six feet apart from one another,” Mukkamala added. 

The Committee to Protect Medicare did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Christina Guenthner, a spokesperson for the House Republican Policy Office, offered to answer additional media questions following the streamed press conference but did not respond to an inquiry from the Advance about the role of masks.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).