Partisan disagreement over masks on display during Michigan Legislature hearing

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Democrats and Republicans in the Michigan Legislature took vastly different approaches Wednesday to wearing masks during one of the first committee hearings since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer instituted penalties for residents without face coverings.

At a joint hearing of the House and Senate education committees Wednesday morning, eight of the Democratic lawmakers in attendance wore masks while listening to testimony. But only one of the 11 Republicans wore a mask throughout the meeting.

GOP members of the Republican-controlled Legislature say Whitmer, a Democrat, can't constitutionally require them to wear masks during meetings because she can't dictate House and Senate rules.

Most Republican lawmakers who participated in a hearing Wednesday, July 15, 2020, didn't wear masks during the meeting of the House and Senate education committees.

The lawmakers on both sides of the aisle practiced social distancing during the hearing, which focused on schools reopening in the fall. And many of the Republicans — but not all of them — put on masks at the end of the hearing when they walked out of the room.

Asked about not wearing a mask during the hearing Wednesday, Rep. Brad Paquette, R-Berrien Springs, said the Legislature needs to have a voice at the table when the governor makes decisions, especially before criminal penalties come down on residents.

"I oppose one person making decisions for the state," Paquette said. "If I'm not able to be a voice for my constituents, I'll do everything I can to get their voices heard."

The Legislature is currently suing Whitmer over her practice of declaring states of emergency because of COVID-19 and issuing unilateral executive orders to combat the virus under the declarations.

On Tuesday — a day the COVID-19 death toll in Michigan hit 6,081 — the governor extended the emergency declaration through Aug. 11.

Whitmer issued her new order on masks on Friday. It requires businesses to ensure customers are wearing masks and residents to wear them in indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor spaces. The order brings the potential for a misdemeanor penalty and a $500 fine for violators.

While the order impacts "indoor public spaces," the GOP-controlled Legislature says it can't reach into its business.

"The executive branch is constitutionally prohibited from dictating the Legislature's rules," said Gideon D'Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering.

Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, wears a mask during a committee hearing inside the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

The order itself says, "Nothing in this order shall be taken to abridge protections guaranteed by the state or federal constitution."

Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said senators are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings and committee venues are set up to comply with recommended social distancing guidelines.

Members of the public sitting in the audience for Wednesday's joint meeting of the House Education Committee and Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee underwent temperature checks before entering the room. About 40 people were in attendance, including lawmakers, staff and members of the public.

But the number of Republican lawmakers not wearing masks while the hearing caught the attention of Democrats on the panel. Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, said the Republicans were creating an expectation that no one has to follow the rules and that legislators are above the rules.

"That was really disrespectful," said Carter, a member of the House Education Committee who had COVID-19 in March.

Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, wears a mask during a committee hearing inside the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, who chairs the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee, said she couldn't speak for other Republicans on the panel but she can't read while she wears a mask because every time she exhales, it fogs up her glasses.

The lone Republican who wore a mask throughout the hearing was Rep. Henry Vaupel, R-Fowlerville, who also chairs the House Health Policy Committee.

Vaupel said he noticed that Democrats were generally wearing masks during the hearing and Republicans weren't. He said lawmakers from rural areas might not be seeing as many cases as those in urban areas, and those lawmakers tend to be Republicans.

It could also be a matter of personal belief on the effectiveness of masks, Vaupel said.

"It's certainly not doing any harm," Vaupel said of wearing masks. "And if they help a little bit, then it's good for me."

Mask wearing has been a heated issue in Michigan, and at times, violent. On Tuesday, a 77-year-old masked man was stabbed by an unmasked 43-year-old man after an exchange over facial garments inside a Windsor Township Quality Dairy. Authorities later fatally shot the unmasked man following a pursuit.

On Sunday, a clerk at a Meijer store in northern Michigan reported that a man pulled out a knife when she asked him to wear a mask as he shopped. In May, a security guard at a Flint dollar store was killed in a confrontation with customers.