New GOP House bill would let county boards fire health officers ‘for any reason’

‘Unlock Michigan 2’ petition has 4 more months to gather signatures

By: - February 8, 2022 7:04 am

Kent County Health Department | Anna Gustafson

Since the early days of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan, right-wing state lawmakers, groups and supporters have fought against the implementation of public health restrictions recommended by medical experts. That includes suing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over her COVID-19 orders, protesting mask mandates in schools and more.

Now almost two years after COVID was first detected in the state in March 2020, those efforts show no sign of slowing down.

Rep. Luke Meerman

Last week, a bill was introduced by state Rep. Luke Meerman (R-Coopersville) allowing county boards to remove local health officers “for any reason.” By modifying the powers and duties of Michigan’s county boards of commissioners, House Bill 5711 would give boards uncapped authority in terms of firing their county’s local health officer as long as a majority vote was reached.

Meerman did not respond to a request for comment.

County health officers have been targeted by Republicans and activists over mask mandates in schools, despite support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics and a long list of other national and state medical groups. There also is no statewide mandate for schools in Michigan.

As of Monday, the state reports a total of 2,019,119 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 30,417 deaths from the virus during a fourth surge of the virus, fueled first by the delta and now the omicron variant.

Still, schools that have chosen to shut down or implement mask mandates have provoked vitriolic criticism and threats of violence. Local health department officers have received the brunt of the pushback.

That includes two Berrien County health officials who resigned in October. Last year, Kent County Health Department director Adam London said he was nearly run off the road after issuing a mask mandate for some schools in the county. The Kent County Board of Commissioners would not unanimously agree to sign a statement denouncing the aggression in September.

County board of commissioners meetings have also often devolved into raucous gatherings over COVID-19 protocols since last fall.

Many Republicans have continued to push back against the idea that public health experts should be in charge of such decisions. Currently, there are virtually no state restrictions in place for COVID-19.

Following the same theme, the second ballot petition by the “Unlock Michigan” campaign remains underway.

The right-wing group — which successfully pushed a petition in 2020 to repeal one of the laws Whitmer leaned on while implementing public health orders during the early pandemic — is now gathering signatures to limit state and county epidemic orders to 28 days, unless extended by legislators or county commissions.

Like Meerman’s bill, the “Unlock Michigan 2” similarly seeks to shift authority over public health decisions from health experts to politicians and county boards by eliminating the ability of state and local health officials to implement mandates. The second petition was first announced in August.

Fred Wszolek, spokesperson for the campaign, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. 

If the petition drive collects the minimum 340,047 signatures of registered Michigan voters it needs by June 1, it will likely be adopted by the GOP-controlled Legislature and will not go on the November ballot. Whitmer also has no power to veto the initiative.

“Unlock Michigan” petition sign at the Second Amendment March at the Capitol, Sept. 17, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

A number of groups, including the Michigan Nurses Association (MNA), Public Health over Politicians, Michigan Association of Public Health and Preventive Medicine Physicians (MAPPP) and the Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools have denounced Unlock Michigan 2’s ballot initiative.

“To keep our kids safe in our schools and in our communities, we need unified safety guidelines for all Michigan schools,” said Nicole Kessler, an Oakland County parent and organizer for Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools. “We need public health officials to use their training and expertise to set guidelines to keep people safe, whether at home, in school or in the workplace. Limiting the decisions that can be made by public health officials during a health care crisis is not only short-sighted, it is downright dangerous.”

The Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools is a bipartisan group of parent organizers advocating for COVID-19 mitigation guidelines at the state and local levels.

“Unlock Michigan 2.0 would entrust public health decisions to politicians who often lack the expertise and fortitude to do what’s needed during a public health emergency,” said James Haveman, a member of Public Health Over Politicians and former director of the Michigan Department of Community Health.

Similarly, the MNA — which is Michigan’s largest union for registered nurses and healthcare professionals — said in a statement that the signature-gathering effort is “nothing but a slap in the face to each nurse in Michigan who has been pushed to the brink.”

“Our healthcare professionals need support from our communities across Michigan — whether that’s in the form of face masks or vaccinations and booster shots,” continued Jamie Brown, RN, a critical care nurse and president of the MNA. “What we don’t need are signatures on a petition to further restrict the government from being able to properly respond to a deadly pandemic that would save lives and keep people healthy.”


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. 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.