TRAVERSE CITY — Local health departments have spent months compiling case counts, contact-tracing COVID-19 cases and monitoring infections.
Now, under a recent Michigan Department of Health and Human Services public health order, health departments also face daily follow-ups, investigations and calls on potential violations. The responsibilities parallel widespread reluctance from law enforcement officials and prosecutors to pursue enforcing the new orders.
The enforcement responsibilities accompany MDHHS-run orders, according to MDHHS Public Information Officer Lynn Sutfin.
The department has taken over COVID-19 related restrictions and protective orders previously handled by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
In October, the law Whitmer used to issue executive orders was struck down by the state’s Supreme Court, rendering her emergency executive powers moot without support from the state legislature.
MDHHS subsequently took over the regulation under Michigan Public Health code, according to state law.
Lisa Peacock, a health officer with both the Health Department of Northwest Michigan and Benzie-Leelanau Health Department, said spiking coronavirus case counts and dwindling hospital capacity spurred the latest order — a three-week “pause” , which came into effect Nov. 18.
She and other health department officials fielded questions on the matter and others during a media call last week.
Those restrictions require Michigan residents to limit their home visits and guests to one other household. The “pause” also shuttered high schools, bars, casinos, movie theaters, school sports, bowling alleys and other indoor gatherings.
Thanksgiving week brought considerable concerns — health department officials voiced worries over holiday gatherings and meet-ups they say could trigger exponential spread.
“The goal of the order is to reduce the spread of COVID-19, particularly as it relates to indoor gatherings,” said Sutfin. “(That) will, in turn, reduce the strain on our health care system and save lives.”
Some law enforcem- ent officials feel less confident.
Since mid-March, local police, court and sheriff’s officials have voiced hesitation in rolling out and enforcing orders from Whitmer and, more recently, the Department of Health and Human Services.
While early trends show orders played a role in keeping Michigan’s case counts lower, several proved confusing and vague as far as enforcement, said Antrim County Sheriff Dan Bean.
“The big problem is that nothing stays consistent with this,” Bean said. “And now it’s continuing to go back and forth again.”
Antrim County Prosecutor Jim Rossiter has yet to be called upon to review any such prosecutions, he said Tuesday.
He’s still working on comprehensive review of those rules.
“With a variety of other issues going on, … I have not put that at the top of my priority list,” Rossiter said.
It certainly doesn’t help when so many orders have come, gone and remained, he said.
Yet, health experts say it’s more important than ever to follow public health orders related to COVID-19 — especially for those questioning enforcement and doubting consequences.
It means health department officers face the work themselves — and they’ve offered several pleas to the public for cooperation.
“The order is targeted and temporary — but a terrible loss of life will be forever unless we act,” Sutfin said.
Sutfin’s colleagues at Lansing-based MDHHS offices have taken on a bit of the load as well — including collaborations with state licensing commissions and others to stop address businesses that ignore the orders.
Last week, MDHHS issued multiple citations, paired with suspensions from the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, to several businesses for violating the Nov. 18 rules.
The list includes Big Boy of Sandusky, Cafe Rosetta in Calumet, Woodchips Barbecue or Lapeer and in Fenton, The Meeting Place, according to an MDHHS release.
Each broke the newest order several times — allowing in-person gatherings and dining, failing to supply staff with face coverings and a failure to encourage safety measures at their businesses, the release states.
Local and regional health departments deal with a little more footwork, according to Peacock.
“Every day, we’re doing some level of enforcement,” said Peacock, who touts more than 20 years as a nurse.
Each complaint, regardless of perceived merit, is investigated and followed-up on, she said in the Wednesday call.
A follow-up with the accused business comes after, and health department officials attempt to settle the situation amicably, usually by explaining the reasoning behind orders and why they’re important to follow.
If that turns sour or violations continue happening, health officers have a few options — filing a civil complaint, filing a criminal complaint or pushing it up the chain to MDHHS.
Peacock said those can come in a few different flavors — sending a cease-and-desist letter, forwarding the complaint to another regulatory agency or seeking civil or criminal penalties in county-level courts.
Criminally, violation of these orders, backed by the state’s public health code, is a misdemeanor offense offering up to 6 months in jail and a small fine, according to Sutfin.
“We know this is not easy for anyone,” MDHHS Director Robert Gordon wrote in a release. “The sooner we can mitigate the spread of COVID-19 the sooner we can all get back to doing the things we enjoy.”
See COVID-19 updates at www.record-eagle.com.