Berrien County Commissioners respond to mask mandate

Published 2:51 pm Wednesday, September 15, 2021

BERRIEN COUNTY — The Berrien County Board of Commissioners has responded to a recent mask mandate issued by the Berrien County Health Department.

On Sept. 1, Acting Berrien County Health Officer Courtney Davis issued a Public Health Order requiring face masks to be worn in all pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade educational settings by students and staff. The order applies while inside any enclosed structure, regardless of vaccination status.

The decision sparked controversy throughout the community. At last week’s Berrien County Board of Commissioners meeting, many residents spoke out against the order. Also at the meeting Commissioner Ezra Scott said the order made him want to rescind an Aug. 26 resolution that showed support for health department employees. Commissioner Julie Wuerfel asked for a resolution of no confidence.

On Wednesday, a letter sent on behalf of all commissioners said the board was limited in the actions it could take in response to the order.

Following issuance of the order, the county obtained opinions from its legal team and canvassed neighboring counties concerning the legal authority of county health officers to issue health orders of this type. The county legal team determined that the board of commissioners and the county administrator have no authority to intervene in the health officer’s performance of her statutory duties under Michigan’s Public Health Code. This is consistent with the findings from other counties.

The Public Health Code, enacted in 1978, states that a local health officer, which includes the county health officer, “may take actions and make determinations necessary or appropriate to carry out the local health department’s functions… and to protect the public health and prevent disease.”

The Health Code additionally provides that a violation of a local health officer’s order constitutes a misdemeanor

Due to the provisions of the Michigan Public Health Code, the Berrien County Board of Commissioners:

  • Does not have authority over local public health orders.
  • Does not have authority to remove a health officer for issuing a masking order pursuant to the above provisions of the Public Health Code.
  • May face legal action if the commissioners interfere with the implementation of the Public Health Order.
  • May not defund the health department in an effort to block the public health order. If the county defunds, the state may move in to assume control of the health department.

“In summary, the County Administrator and the Board of Commissioners have no legal power to in any way intervene in or block the Sept. 1 Public Health Order,” Wednesday’s letter reads. “Citizens are encouraged to share their opinions and concerns about the state laws, which grant authority to local public health officers with state lawmakers in Lansing.”