Houghton County Commissioners formally request end to shutdown

Zoom screen capture (left to right) Commissioner Tom Tikkanen, Chairperson of the Board Al Koskela, and County Administrator Ben Larson sit together inside the county chambers Tuesday night. The rest of the commissioners, staff, and public convened with them via Zoom.

Houghton County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to send a resolution imploring Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state government to allow restaurants, bars and ice rinks to reopen for indoor business when the current shutdown orders expire, rather than renewing them. The current order expires on Dec. 20.

The motion was proposed by Commissioner Glenn Anderson and supported by Commissioner Tom Tikkanen.

“You know, up till two, three weeks ago, they were operating quite safely throughout the Houghton County,” Anderson said.

Tikkanen said he had received many letters from residents concerned about the topic.

“This is such an extraordinary time,” he said. “It’s not a time for finger pointing, or public bullying from either side, but I can understand the motivations behind this.”

He said the letters told him about people suffering financially, students failing in their education, athletes without opportunity to participate or practice, and mental health issues in homes including alcoholism and abuse.

“And many feel that this is a situation that’s been fostered by the state and other levels of government as far as creating this feeling of panic and fear,” he said.

Tikkanen said he had received requests from people to declare Houghton County a “1st Amendment Sanctuary,” as Campbell County in Virginia has done. The resolution Campbell County passed rejected coronavirus orders from their governor as unconstitutional and instructed county officials not to enforce them or aid in their enforcement.

He said people were requesting to be able to employ common sense about what businesses they would and would not go to.

“If you don’t want to go to that business, then don’t go to that business,” Tikkanen said.

He said there are inequities being exasperated by the shutdown orders, where big businesses like Walmart or airlines are allowed to operate under some restrictions, while smaller businesses are shut down entirely.

He also mentioned a widely-circulated infographic comparing death rates in 2018 to 2020, which has been labeled as misleading by Reuters fact check using information provided by the CDC.

“I know that many will take offense at that, that they’ll suggest that, that I’m disregarding the pain and suffering of families who have lost loved ones to COVID,” Tikkanen said. “I understand that and I understand that personally, because I have lost family members that were deemed COVID-related. But the bottom line is, is it necessary to shut down the businesses?”

The resolution followed comments by Erik Kiilunen, founder of the group “All Business is Essential” and CEO of Neuvokas Corporation, who described himself as defending the owner of Cafe Rosetta, one of the businesses the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department has taken action against for remaining open under the COVID-19 executive orders. 

He said the health department should be embarrassed at having “the audacity, under any rule, to attack that woman.”

He said his church of 400 to 500 people has also been meeting every week since the first, three-week shutdown order.

“We don’t social distance, we don’t wear masks, and we don’t create problems for the community,” he said.

He asked that Tanya Rule, the director of Environmental Health and Sanitation at WUPHD, be disciplined or removed.

Tikkanen pointed out later in the meeting that the county board has no direct jurisdiction over Rule or WUPHD, only representation on their board.

“I trust our representatives will report those sentiments at their next health department board meeting,” he said.

Kate Beer, Health Officer & Chief Executive of WUPHD, responded to Kiilunen’s request for her employee’s disciplining on Wednesday.

“It’s unfortunate that a public servant who has dedicated her career to serving the people of our jurisdiction is being personally attacked for simply doing their job and enforcing an order issued to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and save the lives of our local residents,” Beer said.

WUPHD also issued a written statement regarding enforcement of the state shutdown orders.

“While we cannot comment on the specifics of individual enforcement action, we can comment on the process itself,” the statement said. “Since March, the WUPHD has conducted countless educational outreach activities with local businesses, including restaurants, encouraging voluntary compliance, which the majority of businesses have done. Follow-up has been done on hundreds of consumer complaints, where again education and voluntary compliance is encouraged. Enforcement is the final step after educational opportunities are exhausted and properly issued warnings are ignored.”

The statement also highlighted that the orders are based on advice from the CDC, only prohibit indoor dining at restaurants, and that health departments are bound to uphold the orders under the Public Health Code.

“Purposefully failing to enforce an order of the MDHHS or declining to do so for any reason would be a violation of a local public health department’s duties and obligations under the code,” the statement said.

They say their goal is to promote the health and safety of an entire community of 70,000 people and thousands of businesses. They thanked those individuals and businesses doing their best to voluntarily comply.

“One individual or one agency alone cannot protect our community, it takes all of us working together,” it says.


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