As state leaders step back, local health and school officials take the heat over COVID mandates
Expert says there’s a national right-wing effort to ‘pit neighbor against neighbor’
Anti-vax on August 6, 2021 in Lansing, Michigan, August 5, 2021. | Emily Elconin/Getty Images
Since the state has backed away from issuing statewide mask mandates and COVID-19 orders this summer, local health and school leaders have had to take the reins. But with more health decisions being made at the local level, the threats and pressure from some members of the public followed.
“There are a lot of people that are just unhappy and they will send you things, basically threatening that they’ll find you, or ‘we’re going to hold you accountable,’ or to make sure that you don’t have your job anymore.’ … Of course, there’s also a few death threats and things like that,” said Linda Vail, chief health officer for Ingham County.
“I think we’re all alarmed and concerned about what’s possible, given the level to which people are getting upset about these issues and issuing threats,” she added.
There have been a number of videos of out-of-control Michigan school board meetings and protests outside county health departments that have gone viral. But like the early anti-quarantine protests last spring, they’re often driven by national media and groups, instead of just organic efforts sprouting up from local residents.
It’s “a local issue has been so polarized and nationalized” through politicians, right-wing talking points and national funding campaigns, said Melissa Ryan, the editor of the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete (CARD) newsletter and CEO of (CARD) Strategies, a Boston-based consulting firm that helps organizations understand the threat of extremism and online toxicity.
In addition to blowback and threats from some residents, officials also have to contend with a new statewide petition from Unlock Michigan to yank the authority of local and state health officials to handle crises like COVID-19. The right-wing group successfully overturned a 1945 law Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used early on in the pandemic to issue health orders. Under Michigan law, the Legislature can approve a citizen-led petition before it goes to a statewide vote — and the governor has no power to veto.
Attorney General Dana Nessel spokesperson Lynsey Mokumel said the department is not currently handling any cases involving threats against health officials and said all threats should be reported to local law enforcement.
“That said, any threats against public officials, including health officials, will be taken seriously,” Mokumel added.
Locals under fire
Vail said local health departments started to feel the heat from anti-vaccination and anti-mask Michiganders when Whitmer dropped the statewide mask mandate on July 1.
“When I issued a mask order last October, it was not that big of a deal compared to what we saw … after the mask requirements went away and then trying to put them back in place,” Vail said.
A Michigan study conducted by the Glengariff Group found that 39% of parents strongly support a mask mandate for students and 37% are strongly opposed, with big splits along racial and partisan lines. But several national surveys have shown school mask requirements enjoy majority parental support, like an Axios/Momentive poll that found that 59% of parents nationwide back mask mandates in school.
Both education advocates and a parents coalition have asked the state to step in and mandate masks this school year, but Whitmer has avoided doing so.
Jennifer Smith, Michigan Association School Board (MASB) director of government relations, said when districts were making plans for the school year in August, school board members across the state also started seeing more threats and aggression during public meetings.
“But it definitely ties back to that there’s no state mandate, so it’s up to the locals,” Smith said.
If you're going to ask the locals to make the decision, back them up when they make the decision. Show support for the work they're doing and the pressure they're under.
– Jennifer Smith, Michigan Association School Board (MASB) director of government relations
Despite this, Whitmer appears hesitant to have the state claim full control again and said last week that “broad mandates are only so effective, and when they happen at the local level it increases compliance.”
Although Whitmer can’t issue COVID-19 health orders, thanks to the right-wing effort overturning an emergency powers law, the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) still can.
Protests, threats started last spring
When asked during an educator roundtable earlier this month to respond to the threats local school boards and health officials have received, Whitmer said, “We need to give one another a little bit of grace.”
“We’ve seen in this environment that people are making all sorts of threats. Certainly I’ve been the target of some. And I hate to see it happen, whether it’s a local municipal leader or a school board member or public health official,” she said.
Whitmer and other state leaders are no stranger to threats and protests, especially during the pandemic.
In October 2020, Nessel, Michigan’s two U.S. district attorneys, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and the director of the Michigan State Police released the details of a self-proclaimed militia plot to kidnap and possibly kill Whitmer over her pandemic orders.
And former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon spoke about the harassment he received when right-wing protesters showed up at his house in December, angry about the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Locally, public health officials who have issued mask mandates have faced hostile crowds packed into public meetings. In Kent County, Health Department Director,Adam London had to virtually attend an Aug. 26 Board of Commissioners work session because of threats of violence against him. At the meeting, a large, angry and often raucous crowd issued vitriolic criticism of London and the Kent County Health Department’s mask mandate for students and staff in preschool through sixth grade school buildings.
London told commissioners he specifically did not ask other health department employees to be at the Aug. 26 meeting because of safety concerns.
“I’ve chosen, to be frank, not to do that because of the aggression and threats so many of us have received,” London said. “I am not going to put other people who are working their tail off to serve this community, put them on the same stage that I’m on right now to be the target of aggression.”
While the threats are alarming, especially for individuals who aren’t used to being in the spotlight, like small town school board members, experts say it can be hard to file criminal charges if the threats aren’t explicit.
“These folks are very good at knowing what the line is before it crosses into crimes. And frankly, even when it does, you know, there seem to be minimal consequences,” said Ryan.
That’s a tactic right-wing groups have been using all across the country, she said.
“You can’t really talk about what’s happening in Michigan without talking about other states,” Ryan said. “It’s national politics and national money and strategy being spent to pit neighbor against neighbor in school districts.”
A local issue has been so polarized and nationalized. It’s national politics and national money and strategy being spent to pit neighbor against neighbor in school districts.
– Melissa Ryan, editor of the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete (CARD) newsletter
What once would be handled within a community, like health policies, have become cultural flashpoints that blow up at the national level.
One way to grow a larger base of people angry about COVID-19 restrictions has been through posting videos or live-streaming protests on social media. Even with the first-person coverage of these events, it is still difficult to prosecute.
“Part of how you become a right-wing star is you create these viral moments. I think that’s part of what is encouraging some of this behavior too,” Ryan said. “We saw this with the Tea Party health care protests in 2009. It’s the same playbook. But it’s definitely gotten more localized.”
Right-wing groups have stayed motivated throughout the pandemic, even when their focus has shifted. In the spring 2020, there were several heavily armed protests in Michigan and nationwide against stay-home orders. By spring 2021, groups were organizing against school sports bans and the COVID vaccine. And now there are protests over school mask mandates.
“It’s largely the same people; it’s the same groups; it’s the same resources. They’re trying to keep their base as enraged as possible,” Ryan said. “They’re not necessarily trying to change anyone’s mind. They’re trying to cause so much disruption that it’s just easier for a school board member to resign or for the policy to change, not because it’s how the majority of parents feel, but because it’s just easier not dealing with them.”
A social media video from a GOP gubernatorial candidate this week is similar to dozens posted across the country. Ryan Kelley is an Allendale Township planning commissioner who was at the Jan. 6 insurrection. As right-wing groups have been organizing a Washington, D.C., protest to support jailed insurrectionists on Saturday, Ryan is hosting an “insurrection afterglow” event that day with the Hillsdale Republican Party.
On Wednesday, Kelley posted a video to TikTok protesting outside of the Ottawa County commissioners meeting, denouncing the county’s school mask mandate.
@minextgovWe will protect freedom and personal choice♬ original sound – Ryan Kelley For Governor
“We told you guys, our patience is wearing thin with you. You don’t even understand what it looks like for us to protect freedom and personal choice in the United States of America. You don’t even know yet what this is going to look like if you guys keep trying this tyranny,” Kelley said in the video.
The comments Kelley made on TikTok are similar to comments heard at local meetings across the state that rarely come with consequences from authorities.
“There are threats that don’t rise to the level of criminal prosecution and in a lot of ways, the threats have to be a certain way in order for them to be something that the attorney general can look into,” said Vail, who added she has received mail to her house from people angry about public health orders. People also have shown up to protest at the department.
However, law enforcement has intervened in some cases. Last month in Grand Blanc, a woman was charged for threatening to kill two Genesee County public health officials over mask mandates in schools.
How often this happens though is not clear. The attorney general’s office does not track all reports of threats to local public officials.
Earlier this month, the attorney general’s office met with public health officers to provide support for their concerns and give advice on “what counts as a threat they can act upon versus other things that are just considered free speech,” Vail said.
These folks are very good at knowing what the line is before it crosses into crimes. And frankly, even when it does, you know, there seem to be minimal consequences.
– Melissa Ryan, editor of the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete (CARD) newsletter
Michigan is quickly moving toward hitting 1 million COVID-19 cases — roughly 10% of the state population — with a growing number of children getting sick.
The proportion of cases among ages 0 to 9 in the last month are double the rates seen in Michigan throughout the pandemic. Despite this growing risk for school-aged children, it’s still unclear what will ease the tension around mask mandates in schools.
After a year and a half of right-wing anger over the pandemic, there’s a feeling from some local officials that it might be too late to quell the vitriol, even if the state does step in again with its own health actions.
“I don’t know that it will take much of that pressure off of local health officials because we tend to be the face of those things for our local organizations,” Vail said.
While Whitmer wants to continue to have local health departments and school districts in charge of issuing COVID mandates and Nessel is directing people to report any threats to local authorities, many local leaders continue to push for more support from the state.
“If you’re going to ask the locals to make the decision, back them up when they make the decision,” Smith said. “Show support for the work they’re doing and the pressure they’re under.”
Advance reporter Anna Gustafson contributed to this story.
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