Businesses in Berrien, Cass counties report disparities in mandate enforcement

Published 7:32 am Saturday, January 23, 2021

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SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN – Local health departments are often the first resource business owners encounter as they navigate evolving epidemic mandates from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

In communities like Niles, where the location straddles the line between Berrien and Cass counties, the enforcement of mandates can vary, leaving residents questioning why.

One business owner who questioned enforcement was Amy Kidwell. Her business, Galaxy Roller Rink, 1120 Ontario Road in Niles, had its doors chained shut after documented violations of reopening against MDHHS epidemic mandates. Currently, roller rinks have been allowed reopen, while indoor dining and bars have not, according to an active MDHHS epidemic order. Kidwell’s violations during the closure of skating rinks resulted in calls to the Berrien County Health Department, where the case was elevated to the courts systems. BCHD Communications Manager Gillian Conrad said the case has now moved beyond the health department.

“This case is now in the hands of the judge,” Conrad said. “We have not had to move this far along in an enforcement action to date. This is the furthest things have gone.”

Another Niles business located in Berrien County, Harvest Café, at 2726 S. 11th St., has been given cease and desist letters from the health department.

“We have continued getting complaints about Harvest Café,” Conrad said. “We are continuing the route with enforcement.

Conrad said there are several steps the BCHD takes when interacting with businesses on the epidemic mandates.

“Our enforcement process always starts with education,” Conrad said. “We feel that it is extremely important for people to understand the ‘why’ behind the epidemic orders, like how they help protect the public’s health. If there are repeat or willful violations, then we are able to engage with our partners in law enforcement to elevate the matter.”

Other business and residents in Niles may reside in Cass County, where they are under a different health department’s purview, leading to a difference in enforcement

Rise n’ Shine Café, located at 2616 Detroit Road, in Niles, within Cass County, opened its indoor dining room against state epidemic mandates and continues to openly operate. Another Niles skating rink business, also within Cass County, was alleged to be operating during closure mandates.

Cass County is overseen by a joint health department shared with Van Buren County.

Larry Wile, medical director for the Van Buren/Cass District Health Department, said his job is to educate.

“We help businesses understand [the mandates], but they are coming down from the state and not the local [government],” Wile said. “The local health departments help explain what the state regulations are and when they come down from the governor. We certainly have empathy for business owners who can’t open their doors or can’t have indoor seating at restaurants at the county line. I understand people trying to earn a living.”

With massive vaccine rollout initiatives at the top of Wile’s priority list, he noted the department’s focus for staffing is oriented there, rather than mandate enforcement.

“We can help explain the mandates,” Wile said. “But as far as I know, we aren’t going out.”

Danielle Persky, deputy health officer and health promotions officers with the VBCCHD, confirmed her office takes a similar approach to the BCHD, but noted challenges her own department faces.

“Similar to Berrien [County Health Department], we take an educational approach first,” Persky said. “After education, if the situation is not resolved, we refer their case to the state department most appropriate for the violation. Given the limited capacity of our small department, we look to the support of state departments to assist with local enforcement issues related to the MDHHS orders.”