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Unlock Michigan sets new goal: Limiting public health orders

Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 5:31 PM EDT
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LANSING, Mich. (WJRT) - Unlock Michigan is setting its sights on new limits to state public health laws after its effort to repeal the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act reached success.

The Michigan House voted Wednesday to repeal the 1945 emergency powers law, meaning it will be wiped entirely from the books. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used the law from March through September of 2020 to make dozens of controversial COVID-19 orders.

Her orders early in the coronavirus pandemic required Michiganders to wear face masks in public and forced many businesses like bars and restaurants to close for in-person service.

The Michigan Supreme Court invalidated that law with a ruling on Oct. 2, 2020, which says it improperly delegated legislative authority to the executive branch.

However, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services took the lead role in managing the state’s COVID-19 response days later by issuing a variety of public health orders -- many of them similar to Whitmer’s orders, which were invalidated when the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act was ruled unconsitutional.

The state health department relied on the 1978 Public Health Code for its orders. That law originally was passed following the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and later amended, giving health officials wide latitude to issue orders aimed at controlling a public health crisis.

Unlock Michigan now is taking aim at the 1978 law with a new petition drive. The organization wants to revise the law by making state epidemic orders unenforceable after 28 days without approval from the Legislature.

The change would accomplish a key goal for Michigan Republicans, who complained often during coronavirus pandemic that Whitmer and state health officials acted unilaterally without their input in working to control the illness.

Unlock Michigan says it already has started circulating petitions across the state to revise the 1978 law. There was no deadline set for when the effort would be completed.

The group has to obtain signatures from 340,000 registered voters in Michigan to advance the second petition drive. It collected nearly 560,000 signatures in the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act drive last year and 460,000 were deemed valid.

Michigan also has the Emergency Management Act, which allows governors to declare a State of Emergency and issue directives. However, that law already requires legislative approval for any measures or emergency declarations lasting more than 28 days.

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