Residents demand Berrien County commissioners take action on mask mandate

Published 3:34 pm Thursday, September 16, 2021

ST. JOSEPH – County residents continued to protest the school mask mandate imposed by the Berrien County Health Department at Thursday’s weekly Berrien County Board of Commissioners meeting. People also took exception with a county board statement released Wednesday indicating that the board’s hands are tied in taking any action.

Numerous residents spoke during public comments at Thursday morning’s meeting. The meeting was once again held at the Berrien County Administration Building in St. Joseph after two weeks of “on the road” meetings. Thursday’s meeting was livestreamed on the county’s YouTube channel and is available for viewing.

In the statement released Wednesday, commissioners said they had been advised by counsel and also consulted with neighboring counties and concluded that they have no legal authority to intervene in the Public Health Order issued Sept. 1. They further stated that they cannot remove the county health officer or seek to defund the department.

Those conclusions did not sit well with members of the public at Thursday’s meeting. As they had at last week’s county board meeting at Silver Beach County Park and at several local school board meetings, parents pushed commissioners to take a stand against the health department and the school mask mandate.

Aimee Foster, of Berrien County Parents for School Freedom Facebook group, asked county commissioners to step up.

“This is your moment, please stop saying you’re powerless, be creative and find a way to solve this crisis,” she said. “Where are your lawyers? What is their agenda? Why are they giving you bad advice?”

Robert Donarski, of Stevensville, was among those talking about the negative impact masks are having on kids. He said his daughter had to use her emergency inhaler during class because she couldn’t breathe.

“We as parents are obligated to act and so do you,” he said. “State code prohibits mechanical restraints and that include masks negatively impacting breathing.”

St. Joseph resident Luke Andresen has protested at area schools and area school board meetings in recent weeks.

“I think we’re kind of done trying to convince you,” he said. “We’re peaceful, freedom-loving people, but right now we’re not living under the rule of law. … We’re not asking but demanding our rights. This is mask lunacy and you are all participating in it.”

Kristina Dahlquist, of Coloma, said the mask mandate and similar measures are not about safety but about using fear for power and control.

“We have to say this is enough,” she said. “A year ago, I thought we’d all be dead by now. Now my biggest fear is people having too much power.”

Claudette Cordes, of St. Joseph, asked commissioners to come up with some sort of compromise. She suggested that students be allowed to take off masks periodically during the day.

“It’s very discouraging to see people we voted in not fighting for us, we won’t make that mistake again,” Bridgman resident Nicole Railsback said. “You’re not representing the public. I never thought I’d see the day where we have to ask to be able to parent our own children. We’re asking you to help us get our freedom back to parent our own children.”

Lindsey Kennedy of New Buffalo asked commissioners why they said last week they would support measures against the health department and health officer but now will not do anything.

“Stand up now. Help us. you need to do this,” she said.

St. Joseph resident Janet Blazen compared the mask mandates to George Floyd’s death last year.

“When George Floyd couldn’t breathe, there were nationwide riots,” she said. “When our children can’t breathe, it’s crickets. That’s something to think about.”

County Board Chairman McKinley Elliott responded to some of the concerns raised as he explained why commissioners were not going to vote to rescind an August resolution supporting the health department or on a vote of no confidence for the county health officer.

“Last Thursday, we heard there might be a lawsuit against the county and then we found there actually was,” he said. “As is standard procedure, the attorneys tell us we can’t talk about the lawsuit, its merits or comment good or bad. That impacted both of these matters.”

“There are laws we don’t like and things that happen that we don’t like,” he added. “I can assure you that every person around this table are in contact with the people in Lansing. They are the lawmakers and the ones who can change the law. There is a unique provision in the health code that gives the state a very long arm to reach into the county. That’s something we can’t change but the legislature can change.”

He acknowledged people’s frustrations and told them that they all have legal standing to get redress if they feel like the county health department has broken the law.

“We are the lightning rod for a year and half of frustrations over shutdowns and masking,” he said. “I wish we could more than receive comments, but we are muzzled by the lawsuit.”

In action Thursday, commissioners voted to:

  • Receive Emergency Management Performance Grant funding for the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department.
  • Authorize the Berrien County Trial Court to accept additional grant funding related to the “Raise the Age” legislation that raises the age for adult criminal court to 18.
  • Renewed the state trunkline maintenance contract.
  • Approved a memorandum of understanding with the Cass County Road Association for the Berrien County Road Department to complete a road paving project in Cass County.