Uncertainty reigns in Michigan as coronavirus cases continue to grow, following a blockbuster court ruling Friday that nullified months of executive orders from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer intended to slow the pandemic.
As local health departments such as Oakland and Ingham counties issue orders to require masks and other safeguards, some experts disagree on how many rules remain in effect after a divided Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Whitmer lacked authority to issue executive orders after April 30.
That’s when the Legislature-approved state of emergency ended. Now, the ruling would appear to wipe out 123 orders from Whitmer.
She told reporters Monday that wearing masks at Michigan stores and workplaces is still required because of redundant orders issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Those orders weren’t reviewed by the court.
“There is still a mask rule under the DHHS director’s epidemic authority,” she told Bridge Michigan.
“We know that masks work, and it’s on all of us to do our part and have some personal responsibility to keep ourselves, our families and our economy going.”
However, it remains unclear how those health orders can be enforced. It’s one of many outstanding questions after the state Supreme Court threw the state into confusion Friday evening with a 4-3 ruling.
Also in question is whether local health department issues requiring masks carry the weight of law, said Bob Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.
“There’s a lot up in the air,” he told Bridge.
The Supreme Court ruling came hours after Whitmer ordered more restrictions for the Upper Peninsula, which is amid a surge in cases. After months of declining cases, Michigan’s seven-day average for daily cases is approaching 900, up from 726 on July 31, and hospitalizations again are climbing.
Overall, Michigan has had 141,000 cases and 7,100 deaths since March.
Whitmer said on Monday that her office is determining how to move forward following the ruling, which struck down a 1945 law that the Democratic governor had used to issue orders without consent of the Republican-led Legislature.
“We’re seeking to make sure that we’ve got a plan for every individual thing that we were doing [before the ruling] and determine under what authority we could move forward or if there’s another way that we have to move to address them,” she told reporters Monday.
Whitmer argued on Friday the ruling doesn’t take effect for 21 days, an apparent reference to Supreme Court rules that allow up to three weeks to file a motion for reconsideration.
Whitmer and MDHHS Director Robert Gordon asked the state Supreme Court for clarification on that rule Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, told Bridge on Saturday that Republicans are willing to work with Whitmer but are unlikely to agree on mask requirements or similar business restrictions.
“If you’re a gambling man, if you’re talking handicapping, it’s likely that most of them, if not all [of Whitmer’s orders], will be terminated,” Shirkey said.
On Sunday, Attorney General Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat and ally of Whitmer, announced she will no longer enforce the governor’s orders.
Nessel’s office said in a statement that the decision isn’t binding on law enforcement agencies or state departments “with independent enforcement authority,” adding that it is “her fervent hope” that people will continue to wear masks and socially distance.
There are provisions of state law that allow local jurisdictions and the state health department to issue rules during epidemics, including barring people from gathering and creating other “procedures to be followed during the epidemic to insure continuation of essential public health services.”
However, rules put in place by the DHHS can carry up to a $1,000 civil fine, while violating some of the governor’s orders were misdemeanors.
Stevenson, the director of police chiefs, told Bridge that police likely will follow Nessel’s lead and may not enforce the orders.
Even so, businesses still can require masks for entry, Stevenson said.
“The big thing is we don’t want anybody getting hurt or injured fighting about wearing masks or not wearing masks,” Stevenson said. “Just respect the business owners.”