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Opinion: Mask mandates critical to the safety of students, workers

Gilda Jacobs and Mark Greathead

We are still in the midst of a worldwide health pandemic that has claimed more than 7,400 lives in Michigan and 233,000 nationwide. As COVID-19 cases skyrocket around the state and across the globe, the disease’s continued threat to our people and our economy needs to take precedent over political wrangling and legal debates.

Our laws should follow the science, not the other way around, and despite the recent Michigan Supreme Court ruling on the governor’s authority to mandate masks in public spaces, we know masks continue to be one of the best weapons at containing the spread of COVID-19.

Third-grade teacher Karen Warner talks about the importance of wearing a face mask with her students on the first day of classes at Harms School in Detroit.

Regardless of the constitutionality of how those orders were created, few can argue their intent was to protect the health and safety of Michigan’s residents, and they have played an important role in doing so. Just because the court has now invalidated those orders does not mean the need for them — or the policies they included — has gone away.

Instead, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect lives throughout Michigan, we need lawmakers to put aside differences and enact those same, common-sense priorities that were contained in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders to ensure that Michigan’s families, businesses and schools have the guidelines in place they need to stay safe.

The most important — and obvious — example of this is the need for lawmakers to enact a new mask mandate that reinforces the guidance of the Department of Health and Human Services and follows the science that shows mask use is one of the most critical steps we can take to keep children and Michigan's most vulnerable residents safe.

Without clear legislative guidelines for every business, school and meeting place to utilize, we will instead be left with inconsistent and confusing policies that could continue to be called into question.

In our schools, superintendents and staff have done all they can to implement protocols to keep the community safe. They have been charged with the critical task of operating schools in the midst of a public health emergency.

If we want kids to participate in face-to-face learning — which we know is critical for their growth, development and long-term success socially, mentally and academically — we must do everything we can to provide them and their teachers a safe learning environment. That means listening to and following the advice of medical experts.

Meanwhile, we know that workers of color and those without financial stability have a greater risk of being affected by the virus, both medically and financially. The ability to work from home is a luxury that many employees don’t have. Forcing employees around the state to be subjected to customers or coworkers who don’t wear masks forces them to choose between their lives and livelihoods. Mask orders help to protect the physical and economic health of all residents, and they are a critical element in keeping our economy running smoothly.

There is a fiscal argument for protecting workers with low incomes, too. More than 180,000 essential workers in Michigan are enrolled in Medicaid, and 38% of those workers are considered low-income. The need for Medicaid coverage has grown tremendously over the past several months, and COVID-19 exposure among struggling workers has the potential to increase costs to the state in the form of Medicaid coverage and claims. It’s yet another reason protecting Michigan residents is a commonsense approach.

By requiring masks, schools and the workforce can operate safely, keeping Michigan’s economy — and most importantly, its residents — alive.

Gilda Jacobs is president of the Michigan League for Public Policy. Mark Greathead is superintendent of Woodhaven-Brownstown Schools and president of The K-12 Alliance.