Some Michigan local health departments are rescinding school mask mandates and other measures intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus after Republican state lawmakers approved a budget that threatens the funding of local health departments that issue those rules.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, signed the budget into law last week but insisted that the provision targeting mask requirements is unconstitutional and will not take effect.
“The legislature cannot unwind the Public Health Code in a budget bill or un-appropriate funds because they take issue with the actions of local health departments,” she said in a letter to lawmakers then.
Still, health officials in several counties have said in recent days that they can’t risk jeopardizing their funding amid the potential for a court battle over Whitmer’s refusal to enforce the budget measure.
The confusion in Michigan is another example of Republicans using their power at every level of government to target public safety mandates. It also illustrates the tension in Michigan between a Democratic governor who is loathed by conservatives and a GOP-led legislature that has sought to undercut her on Covid-19 measures, voting rights and more.
So far, four local health agencies have rolled back their school mask mandates. Three more have backed away from their quarantine requirements for those who were exposed to Covid-19. And more agencies are facing political pressure — particularly from Republican-controlled county commissions — to take similar steps.
Whitmer’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the local health agencies’ latest actions.
“This is another example of where it feels like public health is kind of being used as a political pawn in a larger fight that really isn’t ours,” said Norm Hess, the executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health.
“It’s very frustrating,” Hess said. “Health officers are acting within the law; they’re trying to protect kids at school and people in the community. It just seems like this whole pandemic has been so politically manipulated, and this seems like more of that.”
Though the amounts vary, counties’ health departments receive what Hess described as a substantial portion of their funding from the state. He said his organization is advising those local departments to follow the guidance of their lawyers, some of whom have warned that Whitmer might not have the power to refuse to enforce the provision contained in the budget.
The Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency said in a statement last week that it would follow lawyers’ advice and repeal its quarantine requirements to avoid putting about $1 million in funding at risk.
“Local health departments in Michigan are having to choose between safeguarding individuals from the threat of Covid-19 and the future funding of essential local public health programs,” health officer Rebecca Burns said. “We make these decisions with grave concern over the health of our communities.”
Even in prepared statements announcing their decisions, local health officials have made clear that they were resistant to changing their policies.
The Allegan County Health Department said it risked losing about $1 million, so it rescinded a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade mask requirement last week.
“The decision to rescind the K-6 Mask Requirement was not made lightly and has challenged us ethically, professionally, and personally,” health officer Angelique Joynes said. “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.”
Republicans in Michigan’s legislature included other provisions aimed at narrowing the scope of Covid-19 measures in the budget. One requires universities and local governments that implement vaccine mandates to include exemptions.
“Parents and elected school boards should be deciding if masks are worn in school — not unelected government bureaucrats,” state House Appropriations Committee Chairman Thomas Albert, a Republican, said in a statement after Whitmer declared the provisions targeting local health departments to be unenforceable.
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