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Gov. Whitmer’s rulings will soon be removed, but key Michigan counties still plan to mask up.


LANSING, MI—The health departments in Michigan’s second-and seventh-largest counties issued orders requiring residents to wear masks when they leave their homes, after the state Supreme Court struck down a law used by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to mandate face coverings and issue restrictions to curb the coronavirus.

Oakland County officials acted late Saturday, hours following a Republican legislative leader’s declaration that he opposes continuing the Democratic governor’s statewide mask requirement. Ingham County — home to Lansing — followed Sunday and also limited gathering sizes, restaurant capacity and mandated employee health screenings.

Friday’s court ruling, which Whitmer says will not take effect for at least 19 days, gives lawmakers a role because their approval will be needed to extend a state of emergency that underpins Whitmer’s pandemic orders.

The counties’ health officers cited their authority to take emergency steps to control an epidemic under a 1978 state law.

“Health and science experts agree that facial coverings are critical to controlling the virus,” said David Coulter, executive of the county near Detroit. Oakland may issue additional orders, including to limit capacity at restaurants and bars, in coming days. 

Other local health departments could follow suit with similar restrictions.

Whitmer reiterated that many of her measures will continue under “alternative sources of authority” that were not at issue in the high court’s 4-3 decision, when four Republican-nominated justices joined the majority and three Democratic nominees dissented. She did not elaborate. But the state health department previously mirrored earlier versions of some of her most sweeping orders in its own orders — requiring masks, limiting restaurants to 50% of their normal seating, capping gathering and event sizes, and mandating people to work from home if they can.

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In a Sunday appearance on CNN, Whitmer urged people to vote for two Democratic nominees in November’s Supreme Court election, when a seat held by a GOP nominee is opening due to his retirement. Her office later issued a statement saying she was ready to work with Republican legislators but also would not let “partisan politics” get in the way of doing what is necessary to save lives.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling raises several legal questions that we are still reviewing,” Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said. “While we are moving swiftly, this transition will take time.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and other Republicans have criticized the governor’s unilateral handling of the outbreak while the public has backed her in polling. He made clear Saturday that he does not support a statewide mask mandate.

“I do encourage everyone to honor whatever policies individual businesses, organizations and schools establish,” Shirkey said in social media posts. In an earlier statement he released after the ruling, he said it is “time for bipartisan action to transition from government operating in fear of the virus to government managing life in the presence of the virus.”

Patrick Wright directs the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, which helped bring the case that reached the state Supreme Court.

The governor “must include the Legislature in confronting the pandemic,” Wright said. “It’s possible to protect lives without depriving the people of fundamental constitutional rights.”

Separately, state Attorney General Dana Nessel announced that her office will no longer enforce Whitmer’s executive orders due to the ruling, but she encouraged people to still abide by them. 

There continues to be uncertainty on the decision’s effective date. While the governor cited a Supreme Court rule — 21 days from the opinion — Republicans noted that the case reached the court in an uncommon way. A federal judge overseeing a lawsuit that makes state and federal claims about Whitmer’s powers asked for an opinion on the constitutionality of two gubernatorial emergency powers laws.

“The opinion has immediate effect in that no court can issue an inconsistent ruling, but a court must still apply that opinion to a particular case for practical effect. We are all eager for a final order,” House Speaker Lee Chatfield said.

The court decision came as COVID-19 continues to flare up around the state, particularly in the Upper Peninsula.

Michigan’s seven-day case average, 985, is the highest it has been since April 13, according to Johns Hopkins University. The daily death toll, about 11, has remained steady since June, however, after peaking at 157, also on April 13.

The seven-day positivity rate — a key metric — has risen over the past two weeks from 2.4% to 3.1%, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

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