Whitmer reinforces mask requirement for businesses, loosens it for voting

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order Friday that bolsters a requirement for masks within businesses while making them optional, but "encouraged," for people voting at polling places.

The order comes 18 days before the state's Aug. 4 primary election and a week after the Democratic governor first instituted penalties for residents who go without masks in public spaces and for businesses that don't ensure customers are wearing them.

Whitmer's office says the new order "strengthens" her previous mask requirement. The new order says Michigan businesses can't simply "assume" customers who aren't wearing masks fall within exemptions.

"Wearing a mask is the right thing to do to protect our families, our businesses, and our economy,” Whitmer said in a statement. "If everyone in Michigan masks up, we can save thousands of lives and put ourselves in a better position to send our kids back to school in the fall. For the safety of our loved ones and our dedicated first responders on the front lines: mask up, Michigan."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

The exemptions to the mask requirements continue to include children who are younger than 5 years old and people who cannot medically tolerate face-coverings.

While businesses can't assume mask-less customers legally fall within the exemptions, they can ask a customer and "accept" their answer that they are not wearing a face-covering because of one of the exceptions, the new order says.

Some businesses have voiced opposition to the idea of policing customers within their stores. On Tuesday, a confrontation over masks at a convenience store in Eaton County led to a stabbing. Later, the unmasked man who stabbed a 77-year-old was shot after he charged a sheriff's deputy while holding knives.

Meegan Holland, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Retailers Association, said it's possible that some businesses were giving customers the "benefit of the doubt" on masks and that's what prompted the governor's new order.

Retailers take the governor's orders seriously, but it can be uncomfortable and potentially dangerous for them to question customers about why they're not wearing face-coverings, Holland said.

"It’s an awkward thing for somebody who is trained to serve people," she added.

Brian Calley, former lieutenant governor and president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said he believes Whitmer was trying to close a loophole through which some businesses were assuming all customers without masks had medical exemptions.

Under the new order, customers will have to at least give a reason, Calley said. However, the new order aligns with guidance the Small Business Association has already been providing to its members, he said.

"Documentation is not required," Calley said. "The customer still doesn’t have to go through a verification or a process of proving anything."

Whitmer issued her previous order that required businesses to ensure their customers are wearings masks on July 10, one week ago. The measure, which instituted potential misdemeanor penalties and $500 fines for violators, aimed to stem the spread of COVID-19, which has been linked to 6,108 deaths in the state.

The number of new cases of the virus has been trending upward for weeks in Michigan, and Whitmer has said if that trajectory continues, schools won't be able to reopen to in-person instruction this fall.

Her new order specified that while masks are required in indoor public spaces, they're not required for people voting at polling places.

Of people going to vote in person, the order says, "wearing a mask to protect yourself and others is strongly encouraged."

Michigan's top election official, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, said it's right to encourage people to wear masks "to protect the health of all while recognizing that no one will be denied their right to vote."

"The Bureau of Elections is working with election clerks statewide to ensure in-person voting will be safe for all election workers and voters," Benson said. "We will among other things be providing personal protective equipment to all election workers, who may also have extra masks available for voters who arrive without one.”

Benson has taken steps to encourage absentee voting during the pandemic. Her office announced in May that all registered voters in Michigan would receive an application to vote by mail in the August and November elections. The decision has drawn criticism from some Republicans who've voiced concerns about applications being sent to people who have died or moved.

Whitmer's new mask order also requires public safety officers to wear a face-covering unless doing so would seriously interfere in the performance of their responsibilities, according to a press release.

In recent days, some law enforcement agencies have refused to enforce the governor's mask requirements on residents.