TRAVERSE CITY — As a second wave of COVID-19 restrictions dampen in-office working, high school classes and restaurant dining, some beg the question — what happens when such rules aren’t followed?
Much enforcement focuses on businesses, rather than individuals, according to Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg. And while the answer varies in wording across northern Michigan, most officials share similar sentiment — it’s not their job.
Local sheriffs and prosecutors have long voiced hesitation in enforcing pandemic restrictions, and most are keeping a cautious approach that’s proven familiar since March.
Moeggenberg, like several others, said her department has been passing violations along to the District Health Department and state-level Department of Health and Human Services.
“They’ve been handling … 90 percent at least,” Moeggenberg said. “They’re looking at, say, a business that’s not requiring people to wear masks, or that’s serving food in a way they shouldn’t have been.”
The procedure’s become protocol since the origin of such orders changed earlier this fall — a split Michigan Supreme Court decision in October struck down a law that had allowed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to continue Michigan’s State of Emergencies and, thus, her executive orders on pandemic restrictions.
The ruling ended Michigan’s state of emergency. Since then, COVID-19 infections have exceeded 310,000 in the mitten state, and since March, almost 9,000 residents have succumbed to the virus.
Now, most COVID restrictions come via MDHHS emergency orders, which fall under the state’s public health code.
Moeggenberg said local law enforcement officers only get involved in such calls when trespassing or other criminal activity is also occurring.
“If it’s a business saying, ‘You can’t come in without wearing a mask,’ and the person (won’t do so and won’t leave), we’ll come there on a trespassing complaint,” Moeggenberg said.
Antrim County Sheriff Dan Bean said his deputies have done little as far as enforcement.
His department’s policy, like Moeggenberg’s, sees all cases referred to MDHHS for review and any potential action.
Such emergency calls on their own will not be written up as police reports — rather, under guidance from the Michigan Sheriff’s Association, he said his officers fill out a separate form to send on.
Bean said he has no plans to offer citations, formal reports or arrests.
“I don’t have enough personnel to handle that kind of a thing,” he said.
Benzie County Sheriff Ted Schendel is relying on the same Sheriff’s Association recommendations.
His reports also go straight to MDHHS, and he said the health department can pursue either civil or criminal action against non-compliers.
“If the health department wants to pursue something civil, we’ll write a report. If they want to pursue something criminal, we’ll write a report and send it to the prosecutor,” Schendel said. “If we get a call, we’re going to do what we’ve always done — apply common sense.”
The new rules, which came into effect Wednesday, were largely spurred by an alarming spike in the mitten state’s COVID-19 cases, alongside difficulties in staffing hospital COVID wards and exponential community spread.
Michigan’s seven-day average of daily new coronavirus cases has more than doubled, from 3,000-plus to 6,000-plus, or two weeks, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.
The state has only reported more cases and deaths in days since.
The new “pause” shutters high schools — with K-8 schools directed to make their own decisions on the matter — bars, casinos, movie theaters, school sports, bowling alleys and other indoor gatherings.
The current MDHHS epidemic order will last three weeks, and seeks to curb spread, according to a department release.
It limits indoor residential gatherings to attendees from two households at most, stops student sports and activities and puts other safety measures in place, the release states.
Still, unlike in March, work that isn’t possible to do remotely continues, parks remain open and outdoor gatherings and dining are unaffected.
It’s vital all pay the new restrictions heed, Whitmer told AP.
“The situation has never been more dire,” the Democrat said.
Officials in Kalkaska and Leelanau counties failed to return calls Wednesday and Thursday.
Grand Traverse County District Health Department officials were not available for comment Thursday.
See COVID-19 updates at www.record-eagle.com.