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Senate votes to exempt graduations from COVID orders

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The Michigan Senate adopted a bill Wednesday that would exempt in-person high school graduation ceremonies from gathering limits in state emergency health orders – a measure Governor Gretchen Whitmer says is unnecessary.

Senator Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) sponsored the bill. He said now is the time to adopt the bill as more vaccines are available and graduation season approaches.

“Folks are now able to get their vaccinations. Things are looking up,” he said during the Senate debate. “Most local school boards have done a good job of mitigating the risk of COVID. We should trust them to safely manage their own graduations.”

The bill was approved on a 21-15 vote with one Democrat joining the Senate’s Republican majority.

But Senator Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) chastised Republicans for not doing more to encourage the public to get vaccinated and use safety precautions.

“Yes, a graduation ceremony is a great marking point in time,” she said. “But it is shameful that we as a body are not doing so much more to ensure that we can get and stay back at normal for everybody.”

It’s true that more vaccines are becoming available, but Michigan is claiming fewer doses than its allotment as the number of people lining up to get vaccinated has flattened.

The bill now goes to the state House, where it could be voted on as soon as next week. The Senate action comes the day after Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration released a relaxed health order. It will lift mask requirements at outdoor gatherings of fewer than a hundred people. The order is based on new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The relevant language from SB 335:

“An emergency order issued under this section shall not prohibit or other limit a high school graduation commencement ceremony sponsored by a public or non-public school to honor the graduating class of 2020 or 2021 and that is held during the 2020-2021 school year.”

Whitmer’s spokesman said the bill is not necessary because graduation ceremonies are allowed -- but did not elaborate on whether she’d veto it.

“As Michigan continues to move forward with vaccinations and sees declining cases, we are able to get back to normal ad return to the things we know and love,” said Press Secretary Robert Leddy. “Governor Whitmer is a parent and she understands how important it is for students, parents and families to celebrate graduations. To clarify, there is nothing that prevents in-person graduations.”

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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