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Michigan Senate votes to limit epidemic orders used by Whitmer administration

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Republican-controlled Michigan Senate voted Thursday night to put a 28-day time limit on orders to combat the COVID-19 pandemic issued by the leader of the state's health department.

The Senate approved the bill in a party-line 22-16 vote after a fierce debate among lawmakers. The proposal hasn't passed the GOP-controlled House yet and is likely to be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose administration has relied on the epidemic orders in recent weeks to respond to a surge in coronavirus infections that have tested hospital capacity.

After the Michigan Supreme Court struck down Whitmer's ability to keep emergency executive orders in place without lawmakers' support, state Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon began signing epidemic orders to require masks and  suspend indoor dining at restaurants and in-person instruction at high schools.

Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services,  has been sued by a group of religious and private schools, who say state restrictions halting in-person instruction violate their constitutional rights.

Sponsored by Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, the bill would require the Legislature to approve epidemic orders if the director of the state Department of Health and Human Services wants them to continue for longer than 28 days. The bill was introduced last week and was discharged to the Senate floor without a committee vote.

The Senate approval marked the latest development in a months-long feud between Republican lawmakers and Whitmer over the reach of her executive powers and how to respond to COVID-19.

Theis said the "unelected" and "unaccountable" director of the state health department shouldn't be able to issue "business-killing orders." And Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, said a "neutering" had occurred of the Legislature's influence over state policies.

"One person makes the decisions," McBroom said. "Here's our chance to re-assert some sort of opportunity for the real democratic process to work here."

Whitmer is "focused on doing everything in her power to protect the public’s health and save lives during this unprecedented pandemic," spokesman Robert Leddy said of the new bill.

Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, serves Michigan's 22nd State Senate District.

"The Legislature has spent the greater part of the year trying to tie the governor’s hands and hamper the ability to respond to a public health crisis that has killed more than 10,000 Michiganders," Leddy said. "All of our energy would be much better spent working together against the common enemy, COVID-19."

Senate Democrats said GOP legislators didn't have a plan to fight the virus. Republicans should stop saying what they're against when it comes to COVID-19 and start saying what they're for, Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing contended.

"If anyone feels neutered in this body, it's because they neutered themselves," Hertel said.

Likewise, Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, said the bill would require public health experts to ask the Legislature "for permission" to do their jobs and protect public health.

Before the vote, Democrats proposed an amendment to require face masks be worn in indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor areas during the pandemic. Republicans opposed it, and the amendment died in a party-line 16-22 vote.

An epidemic order already requires masks to be worn in these spaces, but Whitmer has called for the Legislature to make the policy law in hopes that bipartisan approval would lead more people to comply.

After Michigan reported its first cases of COVID-19 cases on March 10, the governor began using unilateral executive orders to implement restrictions on public gatherings and businesses and to require masks be worn.

However, on Oct. 2, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down the 1945 law that allowed the governor to issue the orders and keep them in place for lengthy periods of time without the Legislature's approval.

After that decision, Whitmer's administration began using epidemic orders to respond to the virus. Michigan's public health code allows the state health department director to issue epidemic orders that "prohibit the gathering of people for any purpose" or "establish procedures to be followed during the epidemic to insure continuation of essential public health services and enforcement of health laws."

On Monday, for example, Gordon signed an epidemic order to keep a pause on indoor dining at restaurants and in-person instruction at high schools in place for 12 more days until 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 20.

As of Thursday, Michigan has reported 421,137 total COVID-19 cases. According to state data, 197,750 people are considered "recovered."

cmauger@detroitnews.com