County nature trails, COVID-19 guidelines steer discussion at Berrien County Board of Commissioners meeting

Published 1:58 pm Thursday, January 13, 2022

ST. JOSEPH – Trails and COVID-19 were major topics for Berrien County Commissioners Thursday morning at their Committee of the Whole and County Board meetings. The meetings were hosted at the Berrien County Administration Center in St. Joseph and were live streamed on the county’s YouTube channel.

Commissioners first heard from Interim Berrien County Health Officer Guy Miller and Berrien RESA Superintendent Eric Hoppstock on the COVID issue. Several residents have challenged the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the last several months.

Miller outlined what the health department has done since the start of the pandemic and gave an overview of what the numbers have looked like then and now. He pointed out that the health department has been the leader in providing testing and vaccines. With vaccines, the department has hosted more than 200 vaccine clinics and administered over 64,000 doses.

As for the case counts, he said the previous case peak before the current outbreak was in November 2020. He did note that people should take the current positivity rates with a grain of salt as a lot of positive and negative test results are not reported. He pointed out that while the case rate is higher with the current surge, there have been fewer deaths.

Miller said the county has had nine identified omicron variant cases since Dec. 24, but emphasized that “we don’t test enough to know the actual spread of that strain.”

In response to accusations that have been levied in public meetings, Miller and Hoppstock told commissioners that the health department and local school districts work together but have not colluded to keep mask mandates in place in the months since the health department’s mask order was imposed and rescinded in September. They said they have worked to balance in-person learning with safety concerns.

“We started working with the health department on a weekly and biweekly basis,” Hoppstock said. “We got their input on what our practices should be. We have communicated with the health department but at no point were we coerced into practices, we took what they said under advisement. … It’s been a collaborative relationship to keep students safe.”

Miller added that the health department and school district have the authority to act independently of each other. He also pointed out that the guidance on isolation and quarantines has been constantly changing to where now the current federal guidance gives entities the ability to reduce isolation and quarantine from 10 to five days.

Residents in the audience continued to express concern about health department and school district actions. Richard McCoy, of Stevensville, told commissioners that parents have the fundamental right to direct the care and education of their children.

On the trails issue, Marcy Hamilton, of the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission, reported at the board’s regular meeting on the efforts of the new Friends of Berrien County Trails organization. She is helping that group and has also worked with other trail initiatives around the county.

Hamilton noted that Friends of Berrien County Trails are working on trails that are both on land and on the water. She said trails have been shown to be beneficial to retaining and attracting business and residents, increasing property values, promoting people’s health and improving safety by getting bicyclists and walkers off-road and away from cars.

She reported that there are currently 22 miles of off-road trails in Berrien County as well as 90 miles of on-road facilities such as bike lanes and shoulders where bikers and hikers can travel. Major trail systems in the county include the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail between Niles and Mishawaka, McCoy’s Creek Trail in Buchanan and the Red Arrow Linear Park in Harbor Country.

Hamilton said plans are in the works to expand the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail north to Berrien Springs, the McCoy’s Creek Trail across the St. Joseph River and the Red Arrow Linear Park south along the Marquette Greenway toward Chicago.

Friends of Berrien County Trail are working on those projects and others as well as developing a master plan to promote trail connections, safety and recreational and economic development. That effort kicked off in December and has already drawn support from several entities including Niles Township.

Hamilton said the group has hired a consultant and will be collecting data from municipalities as well as gathering input from residents through surveys, stakeholder interviews and community meetings. The goal is to complete the plan by this summer.