Michigan House, Senate vote to exempt graduations from COVID-19 capacity limits

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan House and Senate voted Wednesday to exempt high school graduation ceremonies from emergency capacity limits imposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Republican-controlled Senate supported the proposal 21-15 as GOP legislators argued that graduations are a tradition that should be preserved despite concerns that large events risk spreading coronavirus infections. The GOP-led House later passed the legislation in a 60-48 vote.

The Senate vote came less than 18 hours after Whitmer's administration issued a new epidemic order, easing outdoor mask requirements and increasing the cap on large outdoor events. Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, was the only Democratic senator who supported the bill.

Many expect the Democratic governor to veto it if it reaches her desk.

Camryn Brent wears her lucky protective mask during a graduation ceremony for students of the Michigan State University College of Agriculture and Natural Resources during their Spring Commencement on Friday, April 30, 2021 in East Lansing.

Sen. Jim Runestad, the White Lake Republican who sponsored the proposal, argued that vaccinations are up, new case rates are down and graduations are an "important milestone" that can be done safely.

“We should trust them to safely manage their own graduations," Runestad said of the state's schools.

Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton, said three of the high schools in her district won't be able to gather for graduation ceremonies under the current orders. But schools have proven they can educate students safely, she said, and graduates deserved a chance to observe their commencement after their 2020 colleagues were deprived of their ceremony.

"I believe they can and will do it safely," said Bollin, who sponsored the House version of the bill. 

Rep. Darrin Camilleri, D-Brownstown Township, noted that his younger sister also must limit the number of family members at her graduation ceremony. Still, he supported the state restrictions on the ceremonies and said his family planned a smaller, safe graduation party.

"We are literally months away from life back to normal," Camilleri said. "We have an opportunity in this chamber to just say that we will address the ongoing opportunities for recovery from this pandemic and not choose to fight battles that are not ours. This bill before us today is choosing a fight that we don’t need to have.”

Under the administration's new epidemic order, which takes effect Thursday, outdoor gatherings can feature enough people to match 20% of the venue's normal capacity limit or 20 people per 1,000 square feet if the venue follows state guidance.

The limits for large indoor events depend on how many fixed seats the venues have. If an indoor venue has more than 5,000 seats but fewer than 10,001 seats, it can host 375 guests. If a venue has more than 10,000 seats, it can host 750 guests.

The governor is a parent and understands "how important it is for students, parents and families to celebrate graduations," Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said. 

"To clarify, there is nothing that prevents in-person graduations," Leddy added. "Our administration continues to encourage families and school districts to hold ceremonies to honor students' incredible achievements while ensuring the safety of all attendees. We wish all of our graduates the best of luck in future endeavors."

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, called the graduation bill "nonsense." No one is trying to prevent graduation ceremonies from happening, said Hertel, whose wife, Elizabeth Hertel, is the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

There are "reasonable discussions" that could take place on how graduations should work during the pandemic, the Senate Democrat said.

Republican lawmakers have said some school officials are confused about what's allowed at their graduation ceremonies this spring and their proposal would bring certainty. Graduations usually take place in late May or early June.

Kenneth Gutman, superintendent of Walled Lake Consolidated School District, spoke in support of Bollin's proposal at a Tuesday hearing, saying the state's epidemic order would mean graduates would have to pick which grandparents and siblings don't get to attend their ceremonies. He questioned why it's easier for a grandparent to attend a Detroit Tigers baseball game than a relative's graduation.

"It just doesn't seem right especially with how bad the Tigers are," Gutman said, referring to the baseball team with a 8-22 record.

Whitmer's administration is encouraging testing of participants attending graduation with a rapid antigen test within 24 hours prior to the event.

Family members or spectators who attend graduations are also encouraged to cohort in groups of six or fewer with the cohorts remaining six feet apart from individuals in other cohorts at all times, according to the administration.

Staff writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.