LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan's health chief said Tuesday he has “broad” legal authority to curb the coronavirus, as he issued additional orders reinstituting restrictions negated by a state Supreme Court ruling and requiring schools to notify the public of infections.
Robert Gordon, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, reinstated rules for nursing homes and other congregate-care settings. He also told local health departments to inform K-12 schools within 24 hours of learning of a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19. A school must post it on its website within 24 hours of being notified.
The steps came a day after Gordon ordered the wearing of masks and limits on gathering sizes following the court decision that declared unconstitutional a law Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had used to unilaterally extend an emergency order and underlying virus-related restrictions.
He again cited a 1978 law that empowers him to act to control a pandemic — a law that stemmed from a 1919 law that was enacted after the Spanish flu pandemic.
“It's a broad grant of authority," he told The Associated Press by phone. “The actions we're taking fall well within it.”
Opponents of the orders could file lawsuits. A Republican legislative leader has come out against codifying mask and other rules into law, saying businesses, nonprofits and schools can make their own decisions nearly seven months into the outbreak. Gordon said such restrictions cannot be voluntary. He said to expect additional orders soon.
“Orders matter. The law matters. They set common expectations, and they help everyone know what they need to do,” he said. “The science behind what we are doing is 100% clear. Masks reduce the spread of COVID. Social distancing reduces the spread of COVID.”
The state also was expected to keep in place workplace safety rules such as limiting restaurant capacity to 50%.
Patrick Wright directs the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, which helped file the case that reached the state Supreme Court. He said the governor will have the power to do “many of the things that she had done before. But it's most likely that she will not be able to do everything."
Whitmer, for instance, has called on legislators to return to session because an order that was nullified had extended state unemployment benefits from 20 weeks to 26 weeks. People out of work during the pandemic also can receive an additional 13 weeks of payments from the federal government once they exhaust their state benefits and, if the unemployment rate remains high, up to 20 more weeks.
It is unclear if the Republican majority will agree to the 26 weeks. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said this week that an “arm wrestling contest” will take place on that issue, and lawmakers also will review other provisions in the governor's unemployment order.
The Senate will meet Thursday to vote on “time-sensitive” bills that were not immediately specified, with the House planning to hold session Oct. 13. Before the ruling, the chambers had been unlikely to meet until after the November election.
“We will do everything we can to make sure the people of Michigan have peace of mind about the state's response and about their future,” Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield said in a Tuesday statement.
Michigan’s seven-day average of daily new cases, 1,008, has increased by more than 200 over two weeks and has not been higher since April, according to Johns Hopkins University. Though there is much more testing now than in the spring, the seven-day positivity rate also has risen — from 2.7% to 3.1% in two weeks, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
More than 7,100 residents have died with confirmed or probable COVID-19 infections.
Gordon said people may support or oppose Whitmer and his orders.
“For their sake, for their loved ones and for all of us, please wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands,” he said. “The virus doesn't care about the politics. The virus is on the move.”
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