On Oct. 2, Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, received news that the Michigan Supreme Court struck down Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s authority to extend or declare any executive orders pertaining to the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

Gordon, who oversees many statewide health and human services programs such as Medicaid, Children’s Protective Services and food assistance, expressed his disappointment at the ruling, stating that it helped to save thousands of lives over the course of the past few months since the beginning of the outbreak. 

“I thought it was a bad decision,” Gordon said. “(The ruling) undermined rules that have helped to save thousands of lives.”

Following the ruling, Gordon and the rest of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services released an order with mandates that mirrored those of Gov. Whitmer’s executive orders. The DHHS was allowed to set in place their own protocols by issuing them in accordance with Public Health Code Act 368, a law that resulted from the 1918 flu pandemic that swept through the United States.

The public health order requires those who attend a public gathering of 10 or more people to wear a mask and limits the number of people who can be in a store or restaurant at a time. Under the order, restaurants, retail stores, libraries or museums can reopen at 50% capacity and gyms can reopen at 25% occupancy. The order also attempts to strengthen contact tracing efforts by requiring that all businesses mentioned in the order get the contact information of anyone who enters the establishment. The order also allows for bars to reopen, a provision that was not in any of Whitmer’s executive orders.

In Michigan, there have been nearly 160,000 cases of coronavirus reported since the start of the pandemic in March, and over 7,000 deaths, according to the state government.

Gordon expressed the need for the orders and a coordinated approach between the state’s health department and localities to ensure that the risk of COVID-19 in Michigan remains low. 

“We know that shared goals help people know what they need to do,” Gordon said. “And there is a great deal of evidence that shared rules have been effective in reducing the spread of COVID and the absence of rules has increased the spread. It’s our job to protect public health.”

In order to enforce these mandates, law enforcement is authorized to enforce the order and investigate any possible violations of the mandates. Violators may be charged with a misdemeanor, which could be punishable by six months of jail time, or a fine of $200, or a fine of $1,000 if it is labeled a civil offense.

The Washtenaw County Health Department also released a set of its own public health mandates in response to the Michigan’s Supreme Court’s decision. The public health provisions stated that indoor gatherings are limited to 10 guests and outdoor events can only hold up to 25 people. The orders also act in accordance with those set forth by the DHHS, limiting the occupancy of bars and restaurants to 50% capacity.

Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, Communications and Health Promotion Administrator at the University of Michigan, talked about the need for social gathering limits given that Ann Arbor is home to more than 40,000 students who attend the University. 

“There was a lot of concern just around college culture,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “That there would be a lot of house parties and large gatherings when folks came back to the area. (The order) was more about generally trying to reinforce smaller gathering size and precautions and making it a little easier to manage.” 

In Washtenaw County, there have been over 4,000 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic.

The University of Michigan also recently triggered two of its metrics for reevaluating in-person campus activities, as Washtenaw County is seeing more than 70 new cases per million residents and exceeding five days straight of increased positive cases. 

Public Health junior Sophia Heimowitz spoke to The Daily about her growing concerns that without any public health provisions in place, college students and other residents in Michigan will totally disregard any attempt at mitigating the spread of COVID-19. 

“People already are not wearing masks when it was required,” Heimowitz said. “So to take any recommendations and requirements away, I think it drastically impacts (the spread of) COVID way for the worse, and (the virus) would spread much more rapidly.” 

Therefore, to continue to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, Director Gordon and other Michigan Health Department leaders will continue to enforce the provisions they set forth to continue to save the lives of people across the state of Michigan. 

“Our focus is what our role is in public health,” Gordon said. “Our role is ‘what will help as many people as possible?’ Our goal is to protect public health and protect all of our Michiganders.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Julia Forrest can be reached at juforres@umich.edu

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