U.P. health dept. ‘regretfully’ rescinds school mask mandate

Health officials worried about triggering state budget cuts, Whitmer’s office says that won’t happen

By: - September 27, 2021 3:04 pm

Jon Cherry/Getty Image

An Upper Peninsula health department announced Friday that it “regretfully” rescinded a school mask mandate nine days after implementing the measure meant to fight the spread of COVID-19. Officials said they feared keeping the order would result in the department losing future state funding.

Dickinson-Iron District Health Department (DIDHD) officials said they issued the mask mandate a few weeks after school began due to a rise in COVID-19 cases among children. Of the 382 COVID-19 cases reported from Sept. 1 through Sept. 15 in Dickinson and Iron counties, school-aged children accounted for 37% of the cases. 

DIDHD said the decision to drop the mandate for students in kindergarten through sixth grade was made after Republican lawmakers inserted language into the state’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget that states local health officers cannot “enforce any orders or other  directives that require an individual in this state who is under the age of 18 to wear a face mask or face covering.” If a health officer still has a mask mandate in effect as of Oct. 1, the department would lose funding, according to language in the budget. 

“The decision to issue the mask order was not based on a political platform; the decision was based on current local data and guiding public health principles,” DIDHD Health Officer Daren Deyaert said in a Friday news release. “The decision came after exhausting all other options while considering public health’s best interest.” 

The release emphasized that while “public health still feels this is the best option,” the department was informed of the state budget language that “jeopardizes future health department funding.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the 2021 Mackinac Policy Conference, Sept. 21, 2021 | Ken Coleman

However, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says health departments do not have to worry about funding being revoked over school mask mandates. A Whitmer spokesperson said the governor will declare the GOP language “unenforceable” when she signs the budget this week.

“Governor Whitmer has always said that she would protect public health measures that save lives and oppose any attempts to undermine or restrict basic life-saving actions throughout this pandemic,” Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said in an email. 

“We are still completing a thorough legal review and will have more to say when the governor signs this legislation [this] week, but this dangerous language which ties the hands of public health professionals is unconstitutional and the governor will declare it unenforceable,” Leddy continued. “The state of Michigan will not withhold funding from local health departments for implementing universal mask policies or quarantine protocols in local schools that are designed to keep students safe so they can continue learning in person.”

Deyaert did not return a request for a comment as to whether his department would reinstate the mask mandate if the governor announces the GOP’s budget language regarding masks as unenforceable.

Ruth Manier, the community health services director for the DIDHD, said in the department’s news release Friday that “masks continue to be an important tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

“I encourage and ask this community to consider the urgency of this health crisis on our community when deciding whether or not you and your family will exercise prevention measures,” Manier said in the release. 

Mandating masks in schools is supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and Michigan Medicine, among a long list of other public health organizations.

In light of the state Department of Health and Human Services not issuing a universal mask mandate for schools, as the governor had done last school year, local health departments and school districts have been implementing such orders — and facing backlash from some residents for doing so.

In Kent County, the health department’s director, Adam London, reported a woman attempting to twice run him off the road at 70 miles per hour not long after he announced a schools mask mandate, which was also for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Children under the age of 12 do not yet have access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

In Grand Blanc, a 42-year-old woman was sent to jail after threatening the life of a health officer in Genesee County. Linda Vail, the chief health officer for Ingham County, this month told the Michigan Advance that public health officials often face aggressive responses from some members of the public.

“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,” Vail said.

After the DIDHD announced the mask mandate on Sept. 16 the first schools mask order from a health department north of the Mackinac Bridge protests broke out. On Sept. 19, the West Iron County Public Schools Board of Education voted to defy the health department’s mask mandate.

“People were very vocal about not wanting it,” said Iron County Board of Commissioners Chair Patti Peretto. “I think they’re not well informed.”

State Rep. Beau LaFave at the open carry rally at the Michigan Capitol, Sept. 10, 2019 | Claire Moore

State Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) on Sept. 22 introduced House resolutions that demanded Deyaert, the DIDHD health officer, rescind the mandate and urged Dickinson and Iron County boards to fire Deyaert. He also introduced a resolution calling on Dickinson and Iron County prosecutors to refuse to enforce the department’s mandate. 

Once the DIDHD announced the mask mandate was rescinded on Friday, LaFave rejoiced on social media.

“Today the Dickinson-Iron Health Department bureaucrats caved to political pressure from your elected Representatives” he wrote in a Sept. 24 Facebook post. “The mask-mandate on children and educators is RESCINDED….Our Democratic Republic cannot stand when unelected technocrats run our lives with no checks and balances of power. Thank goodness for checks and balances!”

LaFave confirmed in September 2020 that he was diagnosed with COVID. He did not return a request for comment for this story.


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.