Funding in Jeopardy? Health departments across MI drop COVID mandates in response to budget language

The 2022 budget signed Wednesday by Governor Whitmer contains a clause that is worrying local health officials, as it seems to indicate that departments with COVID-related health mandates still in place after October 1 wouldn't be eligible for funding
COVID-19 mask generic
Posted at 1:22 PM, Sep 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-01 11:34:41-04

WEST MICHIGAN — Health Departments across MI are dropping masking and quarantine mandates in response to the state's 2022 budget signed Wednesday by Governor Whitmer, because of a clause it contains that seems to indicate that departments with COVID-related health mandates still in place after October 1 wouldn't be eligible for certain state funding.

The Governor's office has met with health departments across the state to explain to them that the language will not be enforced by their administration.

"The dangerous language in these provisions which tried to tie the hands of public health professionals is unconstitutional and the governor has declared it unenforceable," Bobby Leddy, press secretary for Governor Whitmer, said in a statement to FOX 17 Thursday afternoon.

"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."

Despite the fact that the Governor's office has called the language "unconstitutional" and said her administration will not enforce it, FOX 17 first heard from the Berrien County Health Department Wednesday, saying they were rescinding their order as of that night.

The health department said in a statement that they cannot risk losing dollars, as they 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."

Courtney Davis, health officer with the Berrien County Health Department, said, “It is appalling that local health departments in Michigan must choose between safeguarding school children from the threat of COVID-19, and the future funding for our essential public health programs... Our hands are tied."

The language in the 2022 budget is now causing confusion for local health officers across the state.

"The Governor's office did meet with legal counsels from health departments, and explained the concept of unenforceability, and for many, that alleviated their concerns, and they decided to keep their orders intact. But, there are some who feel that there is still a risk, that while they believe that the funds will be appropriated, that there could be a legal challenge that would take a local health department to court to expend resources that they really don't have, on legal fees would be a distraction from the work that they're trying to do," said Norm Hess, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health.

"And so for some, it was just a risk that they felt they needed to mitigate by rescinding their orders as of tonight."

The Ionia County Health Department has also decided to rescind all of its orders.

Health Officer Ken Bowen said in a statement to FOX 17, "We did not have mask orders but had two quarantine orders and an order requiring screening for child care organizations... we consider this to be a legal matter that will ultimately be decided by the Courts."

The Ottawa County Health Department chose to keep their orders in effect, saying in a statement, "The current mask mandate issued by the Ottawa County Health Officer remains in effect until it expires by its own terms (60 days after a vaccine is available for those under 12 or the infection rate drops into the 'low range')."

Kent County announced around 5:30 p.m. Thursday that their orders would also remain in effect. They said in a statement that, "the boilerplate language will have no impact on Kent County, its budget, the Kent County Health Department or the current limited mask orders."

They added, "any disagreement on the constitutionality and/or enforceability of the boilerplate language should be resolved between the Governor and the Legislature."

The Barry-Eaton District Health Department said Friday it was rescinding two emergency orders requiring face coverings and COVID-19 quarantine and isolation procedures.

"We urge our local school districts and other educational settings to continue to implement universal masking policies and follow quarantine best practices," Health Officer Colette Scrimger said in a statement. "It's critical to reducing the spread of COVID-19 within schools and our communities. We will continue to evaluate the situation and will consider issuing orders in the future as the question of the constitutionality of Senate Bill 82 and House Bill 4400 becomes clearer and if community conditions necessitate such orders."

Rebecca Burns MPH, RS, Health Officer for the Branch-Hillsdalle- St. Joseph County Health Department spoke at a special public meeting Thursday afternoon where she announced they would also be rescinding their order.

Allegan County's order requiring K-6 students to wear masks will be rescinded at 5:00 p.m. September 30. A statement sent to FOX 17 Thursday afternoon said, "The Allegan County Board of Commissioners did not act on the county health officer’s request to support the department’s order requiring students in grades kindergarten through grade 6 to wear masks during the current Covid 19 contagion. The non-action effectively ends the mask order at 5pm today."

Medical Director of the Allegan County Health Department Dr Richard Tooker said in a statement Thursday, "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... 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."

Muskegon County no longer has any COVID-related health orders in place, so this bill language isn't having an immediate impact on their operations.

The Kalamazoo Health and Community Services Department said Friday it would not be rescinding its emergency orders. Commissioners voted Thursday to support all health orders currently in place.

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