In a May 27, 2021 letter from Roger Bergman, the chair of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners, to Governor Whitmer, Mr. Bergman implored the governor to clarify “that county commissioners cannot control local health departments regarding the mask mandate…” and play only a “limited role” in managing the Covid-19 pandemic. Mr. Bergman made this plea because Ottawa County residents were under the “misperception” that local health departments could ignore the MDHHS’ “mandates.” (See May 27, 2021 letter). This letter begs the question: is Mr. Bergman asking the governor to confirm that the Board, as the governing entity of Ottawa County, has no actual authority in its own county?
Is Mr. Bergman asking Governor Whitmer to publicly confirm the Board of Commissioners has no authority in its own county?
This letter comes after Ottawa County parents have pled, for months, with the Board and health department to stop the quarantines, masking, contact tracing and forced testing of our healthy school kids, citing the devastating effects that such measures have had on our kids’ mental and physical health.
This letter is not the Board’s first attempt to convince residents that it “… has no choice but to enforce the law” and that the “law” includes quarantines and contact tracing of our healthy school kids. Al Vanderberg, the Ottawa County Administrator who was hired by the Board, devoted a March 26, 2021 Administrator’s Digest post to the topic, which he entitled “Rule of Law and COVID-19.”
In that post, Mr. Vanderberg admonishes parents and residents that they simply “… don’t understand the authority and role of county and local government in relation to State government.” He claims that the Ottawa County Health Department has no discretion “… on whether to enforce the MDHHS [Michigan Department of Health and Human Services] orders,” but “… has a duty, under law, to carry out the orders.” In particular, Mr. Vanderberg disagrees with the suggestion that the health department has discretion when it comes to “contact tracing and quarantining of students in schools.” Rather, “those who have been located and have indeed been exposed [to Covid] must quarantine….” (More about quarantines in a bit). In other words, concerned citizens of Ottawa County, you do not understand how things work.
Or do we?
Ever since Governor Whitmer’s executive orders were ruled unconstitutional in October 2020, the state has been acting through numerous MDHHS orders. Beginning with the first MDHHS order on October 5, 2020, all orders have consistently stated that “local health departments are authorized to carry out and enforce the terms” of the orders, including contact tracing and masking, among other things. While the Board, Mr. Vanderberg and the health department want us to believe that the county must or is required to enforce the orders, in reality, the term “are authorized” simply means that the county is allowed to carry out the orders. If enforcement of the orders was mandatory, the orders would have indicated that the local health departments “must” or “are required” to enforce them. There is no such language. Instead, as written, the orders seemingly give discretion to the local health department and other local officials.
Other sections of the MDHHS orders also appear to provide discretion. The contact tracing section of the orders have always stated that “upon request,” schools, businesses and other facilities must provide information to the health department to aid in contact tracing. If the health department had not requested so much information from our schools, our healthy students would not have been forced to quarantine, some repeatedly, simply because they happened to sit next to a Covid positive classmate. But, due to our health department’s insistence that our schools report “close contacts,” thousands of healthy kids were forced to miss days and weeks of school.
And, for what? These are kids who, statistically, rarely tested positive for Covid. Indeed, Grand Haven High School released information on April 22, 2021 indicating that of the 1,011 students quarantined due to being a “close contact,” only 11 students testified positive for Covid. That amounts to 1.1% of all quarantined students testing positive. Who knows how many even displayed symptoms.
Despite its insistence that it has “no choice” but to enforce the MDHHS orders, even the Michigan Attorney General’s spokesperson acknowledged in November 2020 that “we trust those professionals… to use their authority and discretion in responding to reports of violations.”
Recent developments have shown that some of the supposed MDHHS “mandates” were not mandates at all, but only recommendations. On May 7, 2021, the Ottawa County Health Department and three other local health departments issued a press release explaining that the MDHHS “has advised them that enforcement of MDHHS’ school quarantine guidelines must be now by local health department order,” and that the local health department is “… not issuing county-wide orders requiring all school districts to comply with the MDHHS’ quarantine guidelines.” (See Press Release). Note the use of the term guidelines.
A Kent County commissioner disclosed at a local township board meeting in late May 2021 that, consistent with the press release, the state advised the Kent County Health Department that the quarantine rules were not rules at all, but were only “recommendations.” At which point, the Kent County Health Department joined the Ottawa County Health Department in issuing the May 7, 2021 press release. (See minutes 9:52-11:02 of this video). This provided a brief reprieve from the endless quarantines that students endured since last fall.
Fast forward to 9:35 to watch
Although the state seemingly re-labelled the quarantine rules as mere “guidelines,” the quarantine notices signed by Ottawa County’s doctor, Dr. Paul Heidel, were termed anything but guidelines. Those notices stated that a child was “required to quarantine …[and] must remain at home.” (See actual Quarantine Notice)
So, what prompted the reversal on quarantine procedure? Did it have anything to do with lawsuits filed in other counties challenging the quarantine notices? Did it have anything to do with court orders in those cases, including a case in Cheboygan County, where the health department “conceded that the Quarantine Notice lacked the force of law, that the student was not legally required to comply with it, and that the schools are not legally required to enforce it?” Was it the result of the court’s ruling that if a health department wanted to quarantine a close contact, it needed to “follow the law” by seeking a court order? (See Court’s Opinion and Order in Cheboygan case).
But between the language of the orders and recent MDHHS clarification that some “rules” were not rules at all, but only recommendations, one would hope that the Board of Commissioners in Ottawa County would start questioning whether the state has authority to do everything it has been doing. Especially in light of the pleas by parents that months of forced testing, contact tracing, quarantines and mask wearing are wreaking havoc on their children’s mental health. There have even been suicides among local high school students.
But, hope may be elusive. After all, in April 2021, when the Governor only recommended that high schools close for in-person learning, Ottawa County chose to stand with the state. In an MLive article, health department spokesperson Kristina Wieghmink stated that “the Ottawa County Department of Public Health is joining the state in recommending the closure of area high schools due to rising cases….” (see April 9, 2021 article).
By all indications, our Commissioners fully support our health department’s actions. After all, in April 2021, when a commissioner asked for a motion for the health department to present a report to the board concerning the county’s enforcement of Covid-19 protocols and its own compliance with protocols, the committee denied the motion. The county’s attorney, Doug VanEssen, questioned “the point of [the] motion.” Commissioner Greg DeJong lamented that he was “… sick and tired of people beating up our health department all the time.” (Holland Sentinel April 20, 2021 article)
Ottawa County residents are awake and watching.
Ottawa County residents noticed when a restaurant owner in Holland was arrested by state police and taken to jail over 90 miles away. They noticed when Baraga County officials said in January 2021 that they would “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America” and not enforce orders destructive to citizens’ economic security and Liberty. They noticed when Ottawa County officials demanded citizens “relinquish personal liberty” to “care for others.” Most importantly, they have talked to friends and neighbors about their personal experiences, and wonder why things seem less “heavy handed” in Kent County in contrast to Ottawa County.
During the last 15 months, the Ottawa County commissioners and county administrator have prioritized aligning with and strict (i.e. harsh) enforcement of Governor Whitmer’s and MDHHS’ mandates. Their actions demonstrate how they prioritize the unalienable rights of the people who elected them.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
– Declaration of Independence (Read the full text)