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Opinion: Don't make small businesses pay the bill for Gov. Whitmer's COVID-19 orders

Bronna Kahle

We must take the steps necessary to reopen Michigan safely and sensibly as we continue to cope with COVID-19. That shouldn’t be up for argument. The health of our families, friends and neighbors — and our economy — depends on it.

However, Michigan’s recent so-called State Emphasis Program — a police state tactic using unannounced inspections to hound our small businesses and threaten them with fines — goes several steps too far. It’s bad for our communities, and hurts workers simply trying to earn a paycheck and support their families. It appears to be focused more on punishment than partnering to improve health and safety procedures.

There are multiple reports from small businesses that agents from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration show up randomly at local stores, restaurants, gas stations and other local service providers with no advance notice.

The owners of your favorite downtown shops are most likely not lawyers, Kahle writes.

They demand to see records of how these mom-and-pop shops are complying with the governor’s mishmash of ever-changing executive orders — everything from mask use to cleaning protocols to employee and visitor health screening procedures. They take pictures. They take notes. Businesses report they pull employees aside and ask them about the compliance of their bosses, co-workers, suppliers and customers.

And the program comes with a threat hanging overhead. These small family businesses that don’t enforce the governor’s unilateral orders to the investigator’s satisfaction could be shut down, face thousands of dollars in fines, or both. Gas stations, roofing companies and delivery services are among those already fined since the program began.

Health and safety is paramount, and high standards should be met. But a program like this is less about protecting public health than it is ensuring the state bureaucracy’s power is centralized, absolute and unquestioned. And it’s extremely unfair to the job providers, and their employees, who are the heart and backbone of our communities. There must be a better way to encourage compliance.

The servers at your favorite local diner are not police officers. They should not be put in the untenable position of making sure customers wear masks correctly, socially distance, and do whatever else is mandated by executive order at the time.

The owners of your favorite downtown shops are most likely not lawyers. They shouldn’t be forced to wade through the more than 170 executive orders unilaterally issued by the governor this year, or asked to act as judge and jury in enforcing them.

Many of the employees and owners of these restaurants and shops already are hanging onto their livelihoods by a thread. Many were closed for months and generating no revenue during the governor’s mandated shutdown. Many are struggling with declining business as they reopen in this new reality of COVID-19. They are on edge, working night and day to preserve their life’s work and earn an honest living.

In this time of great uncertainty, don’t our workers and small family businesses have enough problems without worrying about State Emphasis Program enforcers swooping in without notice and disrupting their communities and their lives more?

Sometimes these investigations are based on referrals. Is creating a culture that relies on informants and asks us to tattletale on our neighbors and co-workers the best path forward to safe and healthy communities?

Rather than punishing small family businesses and local job providers — along with their hard-working employees — for not following and enforcing her ever-evolving orders, I urge our governor to partner with them and their customers as socially responsible adults and to work for a smarter plan of action that unites our communities. 

We must do a better job of listening and understanding the challenges of small family businesses as they serve our communities and try to survive — while also keeping our communities safe. Working together for a smarter plan of action is the best way forward for everyone during this unprecedented and challenging time.

State Rep. Bronna Kahle, R-Adrian, represents District 57 in the Michigan House.