Insider: Mask wearing divides Michigan Senate despite recommendations

With COVID-19 infection rates increasing and a statewide debate raging over whether to require masks in schools, the Michigan Senate has become another showcase for the partisan divide over face coverings.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, as the Senate convened for its first two voting days in more than a month, all of the Republican lawmakers appeared not to be wearing masks, and all of the Democratic lawmakers appeared to be wearing them.

Democratic Sens. Curtis Hertel and Adam Hollier wear masks on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, while Republican Sens. Dan Lauwers, Aric Nesbitt, Tom Barrett and Ruth Johnson do not.

That's despite the fact the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that even the fully vaccinated now wear masks indoors in public if they live in areas that are experiencing substantial or high transmission of COVID-19, which all areas of Michigan are. The CDC said the mask wearing is meant to "maximize protection from the delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others."

On Monday, the Michigan State Medical Society, which advocates on behalf of doctors in Lansing, issued a statement advising everyone return to wearing masks indoors in public spaces.

While they weren't following the medical society's health advice this past week, eight of the 20 Republican senators and the Senate Republican Campaign Committee have received campaign contributions from the group's political action committee this year, according to campaign finance disclosures.

"We trust members to make the health decisions that are best for them," said Abby Mitch, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.

Asked about the contributions, medical society spokesman Kevin McFatridge said the issues at hand are of "public health, not politics."

"MSMS urges all people to follow health guidelines to protect against the spread of COVID-19," McFatridge said.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said his caucus is choosing to follow the CDC recommendations "out of increased concern about the delta variant."

Haley, Pence won't be at Mackinac

Two of the most well-known names who have been announced as participants in the Michigan GOP's Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference won't attend after all.

The state Republican Party had listed both former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley among the speakers for its Sept. 24-26 conference, which takes place every other year.

Both Pence and Haley have been touted as potential contenders for the GOP nomination for president in 2024.

A website for the Michigan GOP's Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference previously listed former Vice President Mike Pence as a "confirmed speaker," according to the Internet Archive.

The official website for the leadership conference currently doesn't mention them, and Sarah Anderson, spokeswoman for the Michigan GOP, confirmed Pence and Haley "had scheduling conflicts come up and had to cancel."

As recently as July 19, the party included Pence and Haley on a press release about those attending the event. And according to the Internet Archive, the conference's website previously listed Pence as a "confirmed speaker" in August.

The headline speakers now include South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

"We have already secured multiple national speakers, but our primary goal is discussing the future of our incredible state," a statement on the conference website from Michigan GOP Chairman Ron Weiser said. "If we want to rebuild Michigan, we must be all in."

Maloney assigned vaccine challenges

Two cases challenging university vaccine mandates mark the 25th and 26th pandemic-related cases assigned to U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney.

Maloney’s first 24 cases involved challenges to emergency orders issued first by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and later by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Because many of the pandemic cases were considered “cognate cases,” or ones challenging the same laws, they were assigned to a single judge.

One of those cases, brought by medical clinics banned from delivering non-emergent care during the pandemic, led to a Michigan Supreme Court decision Oct. 2 declaring unconstitutional the laws underpinning Whitmer’s executive orders. The high court decision came after Maloney, an appointee of Republican former President George W. Bush, asked the justices to weigh in on the proper interpretation of the state law.

In one other case, brought by shuttered fitness facilities, Maloney granted a preliminary injunction that allowed the gyms to reopen. But a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals panel granted Whitmer an emergency stay of Maloney’s decision.

Maloney’s two new cases involve four soccer players challenging Western Michigan University’s vaccine mandate for athletes and a Michigan State University employee’s challenge of the university’s vaccine mandate.

Maloney granted a temporary restraining order to the Western athletes Tuesday, but denied the same order to the MSU employee. Plaintiffs in both cases will make their cases for a preliminary injunction later this month.

Slotkin's service dog bill get signed

President Joe Biden recently signed a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, to create a five-year pilot program within the Department of Veterans Affairs to connect veterans with service dogs to help with mental health issues. 

The program would teach veterans in at least five VA medical centers around the country to train service dogs, which they would have the option of adopting. The bill was signed Aug. 25 in a White House ceremony that Slotkin attended. 

“We have research beyond a reasonable doubt that people with PTSD working with service dogs alleviates many, many of the most severe symptoms,” Slotkin said. That leads “to better interpersonal relationships, lower risk of substance abuse and overall better mental health.”

U.S. Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin talks to volunteers before they hand out campaign literature in Rochester Hills.

An average of 20 U.S. veterans die by suicide every day and 11% to 30% of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Slotkin’s office.

Slotkin served three tours in Iraq as a Central Intelligence Agency analyst. Her husband is a 30-year veteran and her stepdaughter is serving in the U.S. Army, she said. “This is a personal one for me.”

Slotkin was one of the original co-sponsors of the bill and pushed for passage in the House over two terms in Congress. The bill passed both chambers with bipartisan support. 

Energy agency gets Michigan staffer

Former Detroit News journalist Gordon Trowbridge has been appointed the director of public affairs at the National Nuclear Security Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy, where former Gov. Jennifer Granholm is the secretary. 

Trowbridge previously served as an adviser to U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, and held communications posts at the Pentagon, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and was a speechwriter and adviser to former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit. 

Trowbridge is originally from Columbus, Indiana, and graduated from Michigan State University.

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.