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Multiple counties make “appalling” decision to drop mask mandates in schools, cite new state budget

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A growing number of local health departments in Michigan have now scrapped COVID-19 emergency orders over fears they will lose state funding.

Berrien County’s health department issued a mask order for all pre-K through 12 schools earlier this month because of rising COVID cases. Since the order was put into effect, local health officials say the number of new cases in school settings were cut in half, despite increased transmission within the community.

The order was to be effective until community transmission in the Southwest Michigan county was “low” or “moderate,” as determined by the CDC, for a three-week period. Daily new cases and the positivity rate in Berrien County is still considered “high” at this time, as is every county in Michigan.

However, the BCHD rescinded the order yesterday, shortly after Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a budget bill with language that threatens to cut state moneyto counties with school mask mandates and quarantine policies. Whitmer says the budget language is unconstitutional, and insists no funding is at risk. But she did not line-item veto that provision.

In a release, the Berrien County Board of Health chairwoman said they will consider reinstating the mask order if a judge strikes down the provision. Until then, she said the department's hands are tied.

“It is appalling that local health departments in Michigan must choose between safeguarding school children from the threat of COVID-19 and future funding for our essential public health programs,” Berrien County Acting County Health Officer Courtney Davis wrote.

“The science is clear: Masks are an effective layer of protection to mitigate against the spread of COVID-19, especially when indoors in a congregate setting, like our schools,” BCHD Medical Director Dr. Rex Cabaltica said.

The local health department is now urging local school districts to enact their own mandates.

Allegan County's health department followed suit this afternoon, issuing a statement rescinding the locally controversial mandate. Health Officer Angelique Joynes noted that the county could've kept the mandate if the locally elected Allegan County Board of Commissioners supported the mandate, but it hasn't.

"The Health Department will not be able to continue to provide mandated services without this funding. The Health Officer regrettably rescinds the mask order, however if Senate Bill 82, Section 1222 Part 4 and Section 250 are deem unconstitutional by a court of competent jurisdiction or State Budget Director under the advice of the Attorney General declines to enforce these sections, the mask order may be reissued," the newly issued order says.

In the Upper Peninsula, the Dickinson-Iron District Health Department “regretfully” rescinded its mask mandate for kindergarten through sixth grade last week, also citing language in the budget bills.

“We understand without this funding, we will lose important programs along with several staff positions. These programs have been a staple in our community for the last 85 years,” stated health officer Daren Deyaert wrote in a release.

“It has been a very difficult decision to be forced to choose between what is best for the public’s current health situation vs the future of our essential public health programs that will hopefully continue to serve our community for years to come.”

Ionia County Health Officer Ken Bowen told the Ionia Sentinel-Standard the county’s lawyers are taking the language seriously and advised the health department to rescind the orders.

“Losing this funding would result in closure of the health department, which would benefit nobody,” Bowen told the paper on Tuesday.

The Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency didn't have a mask mandate, but a week ago had issued an order regarding when students who were exposed to COVID-19 must quarantine. Today, that was rescinded, effective this evening.

*This post has been updated to note the addition of Allegan County and the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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