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2 big Michigan counties require masks after court ruling

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The health departments in Michigan’s second-and seventh-largest counties issued orders requiring residents to wear masks when they leave their homes, after the state Supreme Court struck down a law used by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to mandate face coverings and issue restrictions to curb the coronavirus.

Oakland County officials acted late Saturday, hours following a Republican legislative leader’s declaration that he opposes continuing the Democratic governor’s statewide mask requirement. Ingham County — home to Lansing — followed Sunday and also limited gathering sizes, restaurant capacity and mandated employee health screenings.

Friday’s court ruling, which Whitmer says will not take effect for at least 19 days, gives lawmakers a role because their approval will be needed to extend a state of emergency that underpins Whitmer’s pandemic orders.

The counties’ health officers cited their authority to take emergency steps to control an epidemic under a 1978 state law.

“Health and science experts agree that facial coverings are critical to controlling the virus,” said David Coulter, executive of the county near Detroit. Oakland may issue additional orders, including to limit capacity at restaurants and bars, in coming days.

Other local health departments could follow suit with similar restrictions.

Whitmer reiterated that many of her measures will continue under “alternative sources of authority” that were not at issue in the high court’s 4-3 decision, when four Republican-nominated justices joined the majority and three Democratic nominees dissented. She did not elaborate. But the state health department previously mirrored earlier versions of some of her most sweeping orders in its own orders — requiring masks, limiting restaurants to 50% of their normal seating, capping gathering and event sizes, and mandating people to work from home if they can.

In a Sunday appearance on CNN, Whitmer urged people to vote for two Democratic nominees in November’s Supreme Court election, when a seat held by a GOP nominee is opening due to his retirement. Her office later issued a statement saying she was ready to work with Republican legislators but also would not let “partisan politics” get in the way of doing what is necessary to save lives.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling raises several legal questions that we are still reviewing,” Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said. “While we are moving swiftly, this transition will take time.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and other Republicans have criticized the governor’s unilateral handling of the outbreak while the public has backed her in polling. He made clear Saturday that he does not support a statewide mask mandate.

“I do encourage everyone to honor whatever policies individual businesses, organizations and schools establish,” Shirkey said in social media posts. In an earlier statement he released after the ruling, he said it is “time for bipartisan action to transition from government operating in fear of the virus to government managing life in the presence of the virus.”