LANSING, Mich. – Michigan's health department issued a mask requirement and other coronavirus restrictions Monday, just days after the state Supreme Court invalidated a 75-year-old emergency powers law that underpinned Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's similar orders to control the pandemic.
The Democratic governor separately asked the court to declare its Friday ruling not binding until Oct. 30, to give her administration, the Republican-led Legislature and local health departments time to transition. GOP leaders questioned delaying the court's decision and prepared to return to session this month to keep in place an undetermined number of her 30-plus orders, such as one extending base unemployment benefits to 26 weeks from 20 weeks.
The ruling nullified all virus-related orders issued after April 30. It means Whitmer must negotiate with lawmakers to extend a state of emergency and any new underlying COVID-19 orders she writes.
However, the administration can control an epidemic under a 1978 public health law that was not at issue in the case, though its authority is narrower. Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon required the wearing of masks at non-residential indoor and outdoor gatherings and during organized sports; limited gathering sizes; and ordered bars to close indoor common areas where people can dance or mingle and to sell alcohol only at tables kept at least 6 feet apart.
Violation of the order could lead to a civil fine of up to $1,000 or criminal penalties of up to six months in prison and a $200 fine.
The rules “stand up for human life,” said Gordon. He said a different state department would soon issue workplace safety rules, like restaurant capacity limits, mirroring ones that were nixed under the court ruling.
“Honoring these orders and enforcing these orders is critically important to restraining the course of COVID,” Gordon said.
In recent days, some large counties issued their own COVID-19 restrictions, including mask requirements.
“We know that masks work. It’s on all of us to do our part and to have some personal responsibility keeping ourselves, our families and our economy going,” Whitmer said.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, who has made clear he opposes putting a mask requirement into law, accused the governor of attempting an “end-run” around the court and said it is further evidence of her administration's “inability to even contemplate working together.” He also resisted codifying limits on restaurant capacity, gatherings and event sizes. He pointed to increased testing and the improved treatment of the infected since the pandemic's early days.
Shirkey told The Associated Press there is “no way” businesses, nonprofits and schools would want to put people at risk. “Based on seven months of daily learnings, I think everybody's pretty well prepared now to make those kinds of decisions for their own unique circumstances,” he said.
Republicans, who previously challenged Whitmer's unilateral powers and orders in a case that also is before the Supreme Court, called into question her motion that the decision not be effective for 28 days.
Whitmer, whose handling of the pandemic has been supported in public polling, warned that people could lose unemployment benefits if the court's decision takes effect immediately. The governor said the “fallout” from the ruling was being assessed but said virus cases “will very likely go up." She blamed the court and Legislature.
“There will be uncertainty, disruption and possibly greater risk to our economy, more people quarantined and more deaths,” she said.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield, however, said the ruling “should be a message to the governor. We have to cooperate. ... We have to negotiate. I don't think now is the time to circumvent the law again.”
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan's chief medical executive, warned Monday that the state's rate of new cases was the highest it had been since May 1. She expressed particular concern with the spread in the Upper Peninsula. The statewide daily death rate, while well below the April peak, hit its highest point since mid-June — one per million residents.
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