SUTTONS BAY — The Leelanau County Board of Commissioners approved a motion asking the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department to rescind its public health order and recommend a mask-optional policy for Leelanau schools.

The motion, approved along party lines, was made by Republican Commissioner Melinda Lautner, who also called for Thursday’s special meeting. Commissioners Debra Rushton, Will Bunek and Rick Robbins, all Republicans, also voted yes, though the motion has no teeth.

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About 20 of those in attendance were against the mask mandate, with a few of them calling for a vote of no confidence in Lisa Peacock, health officer for the BLDHD and the Northwest Michigan Health Department, who with Medical Director Josh Meyerson put the masking mandate in place Aug. 27. The NMHD includes Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties.

It calls for all school districts, camps and child care centers to adopt a policy requiring universal masking for all students, staff and visitors, regardless of their vaccination status. The mandate comes on the heels of a spike in COVID-19 cases largely attributed to the highly-contagious delta variant and the rise in cases in children.

Just an hour earlier President Joe Biden ordered sweeping new federal vaccine requirements for as many as 100 million Americans in an all-out effort to increase COVID-19 vaccinations and curb the surging delta variant.

The rules mandate that all employers with more than 100 workers require them to be vaccinated or test for the virus weekly, affecting about 80 million Americans. And the roughly 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated, as will employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government — with no option to test out.

In addition to the vaccination requirements, Biden moved to double federal fines for airline passengers who refuse to wear masks on flights or to maintain face covering requirements on federal property in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

By state law, only the Michigan health officer and county health departments have the authority to issue public health orders. Health departments are also independent units of government over which county boards have no legal authority, said county Administrator Chet Janik after consulting with county attorneys. That authority belongs to the BLDHD Board of Health, which is made up of three members from Leelanau County and three from Benzie County.

The county is represented by the Lansing-based Cohl, Stoker and Toskey, which represents the majority of counties in the state.

Peacock was not at the meeting because of a commitment made several weeks ago, Janik said.

Commission members heard public input for more than two hours and received 53 letters that are part of the meeting’s record. About 70 constituents supported masking in schools between written and public comment. 

“To argue against masking in schools as the Delta variant becomes more prominent is like playing Russian Roulette with our children,” wrote Lois Bahle, of Suttons Bay. “This is the time for leadership and doing the right thing.”

Many of those against the mandate cited lack of studies proving that masks work, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Cheryl Bunek said masks do more harm than good.

“I love my grandkids,” Bunek said. “If there was something out there that was going to protect them I’d be for it.”

Some mothers cited problems their children are having with the masks, everything from headaches to anxiety attacks to behavioral problems.

“They’re so small, they don’t deserve to be masked,” said Liz Moeggenberg.

Leelanau probate and family court Judge Marian Kromkowski wrote that she would not remain silent in the face of a call for a vote of no confidence in Peacock or for cuts in the health department funding that have been suggested by some.

“This is absolutely unwarranted and, if passed, will be an embarrassment that will go down in the history of any commissioner who supports any such measure,” Kromkowski wrote.

Leelanau County is not the first to bristle under the mandate. On Aug. 30, the Benzie Central Schools Board of Trustees voted 5-2 to ignore the mandate and adopted a mask-optional policy. A special meeting of the Benzie County Commission followed, with several commissioners saying the health department order was governmental overreach.

By law, those who defy health department orders may face misdemeanor charges and other penalties.

No action was taken by the Benzie Commission, but Trustee Evan Warsecke requested that a discussion of the issue be placed on the agenda of the next commission meeting. The next day the Benzie Central school board revisited the issue, adopting on a vote of 4-3 a universal mask policy that complies with the health department order.

The Grand Traverse County Commission recently approved a Resolution in Support of Vaccine Awareness and Medical Autonomy that bans the county from mandating vaccines and COVID-19 testing for employees and changes messaging distributed by the Grand Traverse County Health Department, which must now encourage people to talk to their health care provider about the risks and benefits associated with the vaccine.

Medical personnel in the community, including from Munson Healthcare, have said the resolution hinders the health department from doing its job and that it is not helpful in increasing the overall vaccination rate in northern Michigan.

Editor's Note: This article was updated 9/10/21 to make clearer the number of people speaking versus writing their stance on the health department mask mandate. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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