Deep Dive: What to know about ‘Unlock Michigan’ petition drive

Proposal seeks to amend law to restrict issuing of emergency epidemic orders

Most pandemic restrictions have been lifted in Michigan at this point, but that’s not stopping one group from trying to make sure they’re hard to come by in the future.

A group called Unlock Michigan has launched a petition drive aimed at limiting state and local health directors’ ability to issue emergency epidemic orders. Organizers of “Unlock Michigan 2.0,” as they call it, are collecting signatures in support of revising state health laws to limit the duration and quantity of emergency epidemic orders at local and state levels.

We’re going to break down everything you need to know about the initiative.

What is a petition drive?

With a number of ballot initiatives floating around Michigan this year, we want to make sure you’re familiar with all of the facts.

Michigan is one of more than 20 states that allows citizens to propose, revise or repeal laws by collecting a certain number of petition signatures from registered voters. Depending on the type of initiative, if petition organizers collect the required number of signatures, their proposal would either go to the state legislature for approval, or directly on the ballot of the next general election for voters to decide on directly.

Unlock Michigan’s initiative is considered an initiated state statute (ISS), which means it will require just over 340,000 signatures to be considered valid. The number of required signatures varies depending on initiative type, and is based on the number of votes cast for the governor in the state’s last election.

You can learn more about Michigan’s initiative process here.

Related: Deep Dive: What to know about ‘Secure MI Vote’ petition drive

What is the Unlock Michigan petition drive about?

The group Unlock Michigan is hoping to add language to state health laws that restrict state and local health officers’ ability to issue emergency orders related to an epidemic, or a public health crisis.

The initiative proposes changes to sections 2253 and 2453 of the Public Health Code, Public Act 368 of 1978 -- which outline the circumstances in which emergency orders may be issued to help control an epidemic out of concern for public health.

Proposed revisions include adding language that says statewide emergency epidemic orders can only last for 28 days from when they are issued, and automatically become unenforceable once those days are up. The health department would be able to request an extension of the order, but that extension would have to be “approved by resolution of both houses of the legislature,” the proposal reads.

The state health director would also be prohibited from issuing a consecutive emergency epidemic order to begin once the first one has been rescinded. This is only if the order is related to the same epidemic -- which, in the span of one month, it likely would be. To issue a second order, the director would have to get approval from the legislature. This is all related to section 2253.

Epidemic orders issued by local health officers would also be subject to the 28-day limit under the proposal. Local health officers would be prohibited from extending or replacing the emergency order with a new one after the 28 days are up, unless it is approved “by resolution of the local governing entity of the local health department or, in the case of a local health officer from a district health department, the district board of health.” This is all related to section 2453.

The proposal also emphasizes that state and local leaders would be required to declare in writing that an emergency epidemic order is necessary to protect public health.

Why do they want to amend state law?

The Unlock Michigan initiative was launched in response to how Michigan leaders addressed the coronavirus pandemic.

Supporters argue that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state and local health officials did not and do not have the authority to issue widespread mandates and closures, despite the public health crisis.

Unlock Michigan was successful with a similar petition drive in 2020, in which they collected more than 539,000 signatures in support of limiting Whitmer’s emergency powers. In October of last year, the Michigan Supreme Court deemed a 1945 law unconstitutional, effectively blocking the governor from issuing statewide emergency orders.

Coincidentally, the court’s opinion emerged on the same day that Unlock Michigan submitted its signatures in a bid to repeal the same law.

Once the law was repealed, the onus was then placed on state and local health officers to issue and oversee their own epidemic orders in an effort to help prevent COVID spread. Statewide emergency epidemic orders, like those that limited gathering sizes and indoor dining allowance, have been lifted for months. Some local orders still exist, however, such as some countywide school mask mandates.

Whitmer’s critics argue that the COVID mandates and shutdowns had a severe and negative impact on education and the economy.

So far, organizers have not announced how many petition signatures they have received. The initiative launched this summer in July.

Read the entire text of the Unlock Michigan proposal below. Note: The proposed text is written in all capital letters, while the lowercase text depicts the existing law as it is written.

An initiation of legislation to amend Sections 2253 and 2453 of the Public Health Code, Public Act 368 of 1978, MCL 333.2253 and MCL 333.2453. The current Act authorizes the director of the department of health and human services and local health officers to determine that control of an infectious disease outbreak is necessary to protect the public health and issue emergency orders. This proposal would require determinations be in writing and would make an emergency order expire after 28 days unless the state legislature or a local governing body extends it.

Full text of the proposal (language that would be added is shown in capital letters and deleted language is struck out with a line).

An initiation of legislation to amend 1978 PA 368, entitled “public health code,“ by amending sections 2253 and 2453 (MCL 333.2253 and MCL 333.2453), as amended by 2006 PA 157.

The People of the State of Michigan enact:

Sec. 2253.

(1) If the director determines IN WRITING that control of an epidemic is necessary to protect the public health, the director by emergency order may prohibit the gathering of people for any purpose and may establish procedures to be followed during the epidemic to insure continuation of essential public health services and enforcement of health laws. Emergency procedures shall not be limited to this code. THE AUTHORITY OF THE DIRECTOR TO ISSUE, REVISE, REPLACE, AND ENFORCE AN EMERGENCY ORDER RELATED TO AN EPIDEMIC UNDER THIS SECTION SHALL CONTINUE FOR A PERIOD OF UP TO 28 DAYS AFTER THE DIRECTOR’S WRITTEN DETERMINATION THAT CONTROL OF THAT EPIDEMIC IS NECESSARY TO PROTECT THE PUBLIC HEALTH. AFTER THIS 28-DAY PERIOD, ANY EMERGENCY ORDER UNDER THIS SECTION RELATED TO THAT EPIDEMIC IS AUTOMATICALLY RESCINDED AND UNENFORCEABLE AND ANY NEW EMERGENCY ORDER UNDER THIS SECTION RELATED TO THAT EPIDEMIC SHALL NOT BE ISSUED UNLESS A REQUEST BY THE DIRECTOR FOR AN EXTENSION OF TIME TO ISSUE, REVISE, REPLACE, AND ENFORCE AN EMERGENCY ORDER RELATED TO THAT EPIDEMIC FOR A SPECIFIC NUMBER OF DAYS IS APPROVED BY RESOLUTION OF BOTH HOUSES OF THE LEGISLATURE.

(2) If an epidemic described in subsection (1) involves avian influenza or another virus or disease that is or may be spread by contact with animals, the department of agriculture shall cooperate with and assist the director in the director’s response to the epidemic.

(3) Upon request from the director, the department of agriculture shall assist the department in any review or update of the department’s pandemic influenza plan under section 5112.

Sec. 2453.

(1) If a local health officer determines IN WRITING that control of an epidemic is necessary to protect the public health, the local health officer may issue an emergency order to prohibit the gathering of people for any purpose and may establish procedures to be followed by persons, including a local governmental entity, during the epidemic to insure continuation of essential public health services and enforcement of health laws. Emergency procedures shall not be limited to this code. THE AUTHORITY OF THE LOCAL HEALTH OFFICER TO ISSUE, REVISE, REPLACE, AND ENFORCE AN EMERGENCY ORDER RELATED TO AN EPIDEMIC UNDER THIS SECTION SHALL CONTINUE FOR A PERIOD OF UP TO 28 DAYS AFTER THE LOCAL HEALTH OFFICER’S WRITTEN DETERMINATION THAT CONTROL OF THAT EPIDEMIC IS NECESSARY TO PROTECT THE PUBLIC HEALTH. AFTER THIS 28-DAY PERIOD, ANY EMERGENCY ORDER UNDER THIS SECTION RELATED TO THAT EPIDEMIC IS AUTOMATICALLY RESCINDED AND UNENFORCEABLE AND ANY NEW EMERGENCY ORDER UNDER THIS SECTION RELATED TO THAT EPIDEMIC SHALL NOT BE ISSUED UNLESS A REQUEST BY THE LOCAL HEALTH OFFICER FOR AN EXTENSION OF TIME TO ISSUE, REVISE, REPLACE, AND ENFORCE AN EMERGENCY ORDER FOR A SPECIFIC NUMBER OF DAYS IS APPROVED BY RESOLUTION OF THE LOCAL GOVERNING ENTITY OF THE LOCAL HEALTH DEPARTMENT OR, IN THE CASE OF A LOCAL HEALTH OFFICER FROM A DISTRICT HEALTH DEPARTMENT, THE DISTRICT BOARD OF HEALTH.

(2) A local health department or the department may provide for the involuntary detention and treatment of individuals with hazardous communicable disease in the manner prescribed in sections 5201 to 5238.

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About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.