Local health depts. ax school mask orders amid state budget confusion

Whitmer says language inserted by Republicans is unconstitutional   

By: - September 30, 2021 5:45 pm

Getty Images

A wave of local health departments across Michigan are rescinding their school mask mandates after Republicans inserted boilerplate language into the state budget that threatens to cut funding from health departments if they implement mask orders for children. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said while signing the Fiscal Year 2022 budget this week that the GOP language was unconstitutional and was not enforceable. 

“These dangerous, anti-public health boilerplate provisions that seek to tie the hands of local health departments and municipalities will not be enforced as part of the final budget because they violated various aspects of the Michigan Constitution,” Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said this week.

Whitmer signs remaining FY 2022 budget bills, vetoes ‘anti-choice’ line items

Still, some health officials remain worried their budgets will be slashed if they keep their school mask mandates meant to fight the spread of COVID-19, particularly among children under 12 who cannot yet access a vaccine.

The Allegan County Health Department announced late Thursday afternoon that it was “regretfully” ending its schools mask mandate for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, following decisions by health departments in Berrien, Dickinson and Iron counties to do the same. Berrien, located in Southwest Michigan, revoked its mask order on Wednesday, and the Dickinson-Iron District Health Department rescinded its last week, as the Advance previously reported.

The Allegan County Health Department news release points out that local school districts remain able to implement mask requirements.

“Our children are a vulnerable population where it is incredibly important to layer all effective mitigation strategies – which includes universal masking in the school setting – to protect them,” Allegan County Health Department Medical Director Dr. Richard Tooker said in the release. “We strongly recommend all local boards of education and school leaders to adopt evidence-based public health practices and put a universal masking requirement in place within their school settings to continue protecting their students and staff from the ongoing risk of COVID-19.”

Officials in Kent and Ottawa counties in West Michigan issued statements Thursday saying they would not end their school mask mandates. 

“The decision to rescind the K-6 mask requirement was not made lightly and has challenged us ethically, professionally, and personally,” Allegan County Health Officer Angelique Joynes said in a Thursday news release. “However, we cannot risk our essential local public health services funding, which is around $1 million of our total budget and provides the ability for us to continue to offer those services.”

Marquette’s health department was expected to make a decision regarding its schools mask mandate Thursday, according to the Associated Press. The department did not return a request for comment and posted no information about the mask order on its website or social media accounts.

Health departments have implemented the mask mandates after the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) opted not to issue a statewide order this school year. Whitmer implemented a Michigan-wide school mask mandate last year. Whitmer has said state officials are focusing on local health departments and school districts implementing school mask policies because they believe residents will be more likely to follow those requirements than if they came from the state.

COVID cases at schools have continued to increase throughout the fall. On Monday, DHHS reported 290 pre-kindergarten through 12th grade schools have new or ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks. Of those, 106 are new outbreaks.

Health department officials that rescinded mask mandates emphasized they opposed the action but felt their hands were tied because of the threats to cut funding.

“The Berrien County Health Department is being forced to rescind the Sept. 1 public health order requiring the use of face masks by individuals in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 indoor educational settings or face [a] loss of nearly $1.5 million in budget,” the department said in Wednesday news release. 

Berrien County health officials said Wednesday that while Whitmer stated the budget language is unconstitutional, “Berrien County legal counselors have advised it stands until proven otherwise in a court of law.”

“The Berrien County Health Department cannot risk losing these essential dollars, which fund vital community programs and services such as immunizations, infectious disease control, sexually transmitted disease control and prevention, hearing screening, vision services, food protection, public water supply, private groundwater supply and on-site sewage management,” the department said in the same release.

The Dickinson-Iron District Health Department, located in the Upper Peninsula, also said it was revoking its schools mask mandate out of fears its budget would be cut.

But officials in Ottawa and Kent counties said otherwise and left their mask mandates in place. Officials said because lawmakers did not amend the state’s Public Health Code, which allows county health officers to issue mask mandates, they cannot enforce the boilerplate language in the budget.

Legally, the Legislature cannot amend the Public Health Code through the appropriations act,” said a Thursday statement from Ottawa County. “Since it has chosen not to amend the Public Health Code, the appropriations boiler statement has no effect on Ottawa County, its budget, its Public Health Department, or existing public health orders.”

Kent County Health Department | Anna Gustafson

Public health officials have faced mounting aggression against them after announcing school mask mandates.

As the Advance first reported, Kent County Health Department director Adam London said a woman attempted to twice run him off the road at 70 miles per hour not long after he announced a schools mask mandate last month.

London painted a dark picture of the abuse he has faced in an Aug. 22 email to Kent County commissioners, from people “accusing me of being a deep state agent of liberal-progressive socialist powers that are working to undo the America they love (paraphrased minus expletives)” to others calling him a “child-abusing monster.”

“Last week, I had a person yell out to me, “Hey mother******, I hope someone abuses your kids and forces you to watch,” London wrote.

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.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.

MORE FROM AUTHOR