Berrien County forced to rescind mask requirements for schools

The Berrien County Health Department is being forced by the state to rescind its mask requirement for students.

If the order remained in effect, the county could lose nearly $1.5 million in state funding.

The order will be rescinded as of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

Republican lawmakers inserted language in the budget that would pull state funding from any health department that has a mask requirement in place as of October 1.

The health department says the language in Senate Bill 82 and House Bill 4400 would affect the funding of health departments that have issued an emergency order in an attempt to combat the spread of COVID-19, including requiring face masks in school settings.

The governor's office said Gretchen Whitmer was unable to veto the language because it didn't have an expenditure attached, however the governor believes the demand is unconstitutional.

“Governor Whitmer has always said that she would protect public health measures that save lives and oppose any attempts to undermine or restrict basic lifesaving actions throughout this pandemic. The dangerous language in these provisions which tried to tie the hands of public health professionals is unconstitutional and the governor has declared it unenforceable. The state of Michigan will not withhold funding from local health departments for implementing universal mask policies or quarantine protocols in local schools that are designed to keep students safe so they can continue learning in person," said Bobby Leddy, Governor Whitmer's Press Secretary.

“It is appalling that local health departments in Michigan must choose between safeguarding school children from the threat of COVID-19 and the future funding for our essential public health programs,” said Courtney Davis, acting BCHD health officer. “Our hands are tied. We make this decision citing grave concerns over the health of our community. We strongly urge all local school boards of education and school leaders to continue to align with sound public health practice and to immediately enact a requirement for universal masking within their districts and institutions to continue protecting their students and staff from the ongoing risk of COVID-19.”

Since the order was put into effect on Sept. 6, the Health Department says it  noted an over 50% decrease in the numbers of new cases and quarantines experienced in school settings among students and staff.

“The science is clear: masks are an effective layer of protection to mitigate against the spread of COVID-19, especially when indoors in a congregate setting, like our schools," health department Medical Director Dr. Rex Cabaltica said.

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