The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners adopted a schedule of civil monetary penalties Wednesday night for violations of public health guidelines, including the stay-in-place order for undergraduate students at the University of Michigan. People who do not follow the rules established by the county can be issued citations ranging from $500 to $1,000, with an option to appeal the charge.
Officials said they would emphasize education and prevention before resorting to fines.
The Washtenaw County Health Department announced the order Tuesday and will require that all undergraduates remain in their residences until Nov. 3 at 7 a.m. Students can leave their homes for a variety of reasons, including attending in-person classes, obtaining medical care, voting, going to work and exercising in pairs. Undergraduates may not go to gyms or eat in restaurants while the order is in place.
Commissioner Jason Morgan, D-District 8, said the fines would be imposed on those hosting large gatherings in defiance of the order.
“This isn’t a $500 or $1,000 fine for not wearing a mask,” Morgan said. “These are specifically related to the two orders in place, which would be the restrictions on gatherings and then the new restriction on your University admission undergrad students.”
Earlier in October, Washtenaw County limited indoor gatherings to 10 people and outdoor events to 25. Those restrictions will remain in place until it is “determined by the Washtenaw County Health Officer that the threat to the public’s health and lives is no longer present.”
People who don’t comply with the restriction on gatherings and the stay-in-place order could face a $500 penalty.
For violations that pose “imminent danger,” the fee can reach up to $1,000. People have an option to appeal the penalty.
Commissioner Sue Shink, D-District 2, said voting and other civil actions are not restricted by the orders.
“I heard some common concern from the community that people are worried about whether students at U-M are allowed to engage in political acts of political speech,” Shrink said. “Whether that be campaigning or voting, such as going to vote or registering to vote or campaigning, are not included in this and so people don’t have to be concerned that they would be hit with a fine for doing something like that.”
While the University and the city have previously issued warnings and regulations, the Health Department said that students who violate these orders could face fines. Local orders follow the Michigan Public Health Code. Currently, section 2453, which is dedicated to controlling an epidemic, has been put in place and the two current local orders fall under this section. Violators of these sections are subject to a $500 fine.
Commissioner Ricky Jefferson, D-District 6, spoke about the gravity of the pandemic and said that “great care” has been taken “to avoid actually issuing fines” while working to protect the safety of the community.
“This COVID-19 is very serious,” Jefferson said. “Of course, we don’t want to penalize and we did ask those questions about low-income individuals, (but) we want to be sure that we also protect them … This is a serious, deadly disease that this ordinance needs to be followed.”
University of Michigan leaders and Washtenaw County officials have said the stay-in-place order is a tool to curb the spread of COVID-19 on campus, but students are doubtful it will work.
In a previous interview with The Daily, Rackham student Ryan Glauser noted the order includes numerous exceptions.
“The reason the stay-in-place orders worked in March, April and May is because there were no exceptions,” Glauser said. “You had to go home, and you had to go to the grocery store, and you had to go back. There was no middle ground. What they did here is they offer six potential ways out of this order, and these six ways will cover everybody. So you don’t have to be under this order if you don’t want to be under this order.”
In an interview Tuesday, Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, public information officer for the Washtenaw County Health Department, said the order will be implemented in the same manner as other state and local health protocols.
While violators could receive fines, the University and county will look to educate students before penalizing them, Ringler-Cerniglia said, adding that local law enforcement can be contacted for emergencies that need immediate attention.
“The first approach is really going to be about education,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “We prefer to have compliance and people doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do to prevent the spread of disease versus trying to levy fines at everyone.”
At the meeting Wednesday night, Commissioner Katie Scott, D-District 9, emphasized the commission’s concern for the well-being of the community.
“I also want to assure any members of the Washtenaw County public that we were all, every single one of us, very concerned with not putting a burden on anybody with these fines,” Scott said. “It was a discussion with every member of this board when we thought about doing this. Every single person had those concerns. Our aim is not to burden people, but to lessen the burden of this disease in our community.”
The proposed amendments and adapted resolution both passed unanimously.
Daily Staff Reporter Sarah Payne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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