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After COVID-inspired debate, Houghton County approves WUPHD funds

HOUGHTON — In November, the Houghton County Board unanimously approved funding for the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department.

Tuesday, it approved funding again — only this time with a 3-2 vote, and only after several minutes of debate between commissioners.

The uncertainty around a usually mundane appropriations request came as the department has become a target for frustrations over the state’s anti-COVID measures, which the WUPHD is legally tasked with enforcing in the five-county area. Establishments violating the ban on indoor dining include Calumet’s Cafe Rosetta, which has continued to offer indoor service in violation of the order despite fines from the state. Wednesday, the state announced the ban is expected to continue until Feb. 1, although some restrictions were eased, such as those on indoor exercise and non-contact sports.

After Commissioner Glenn Anderson moved to approve appropriations for WUPHD and Copper Country Mental Health, Chair Al Koskela agreed both should be approved but asked the board to “hang on to the money for (WUPHD) for a couple of weeks.”

The county’s agreement with the WUPHD does not bind it to pay its fee, said Commissioner Roy Britz. But in return, the agreement states, the WUPHD would raise environmental health fees to clients in a non-paying county, and reduce services to non-paying counties.

“So it actually punishes the people of Houghton County,” he said.

Anderson said although he has criticized parts of state and federal COVID-19 policy, he disagreed with withholding WUPHD funding for political purposes. It’s especially counterproductive now as the department is one of the leaders of the county’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts, Anderson said.

“I disagree with that wholeheartedly, and I think that’s a very naive way of handling local politics,” he said. “If you have an issue with the pandemic, you should speak about the pandemic.”

Koskela said he wanted to see the department focus on vaccinations instead of enforcing the state order. He condemned what he termed “Gestapo tactics” from the WUPHD, and mentioned several Lake Linden and Hubbell restaurants hurt by the state order.

“This is getting to a point where people are having a hard time to survive … and I think it’s time we take a closer look at that and forget politics, totally, and start sticking up for these local people, these local businesses that cannot survive,” he said.

Anderson said the Michigan State Police had been the one to serve the state lawsuit against Cafe Rosetta.

“Well, they had to,” Koskela said.

“Yeah, well, there you go,” Anderson said.

Commissioner Roy Britz read a letter from WUPHD Health Director Kate Beer describing the department’s responsibility in carrying out emergency health orders.

“Purposely failing to enforce an order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, or to decline to do so for any reason, would be a violation of the local health department’s duties and obligations under the code, and may result in civil or criminal penalties,” he said. “A local health department failure to comply with the requirements of the code, contract or agreement may also subject the local health department to loss of funding.”

Beer also responded to a question from resident Randy McClellan asking about rental fees from the WUPHD building. Current tenants include Phoenix House and a psychiatrist, she said; rental fees go towards offsetting expenses at the building.

While he personally believes people should be able to decide for themselves whether to eat indoors, Britz said, the WUPHD had done a good job of carrying out their responsibilities.

“Someone needs to clarify, and I hope I’m doing that right now, what the Health Department role is, and stop this crap of pushing them around and cutting them down, because they’re doing their jobs, just like the state police is doing their job, the sheriff’s (department) are doing their job,” he said.

Britz also worried about the potential for the situation to grow worse, as evidenced by a picture he saw of someone at Cafe Rosetta with a gun over his shoulder.

“The person in Kenosha, Wisconsin, went down there with goodwill with that gun, and he ended up shooting somebody,” he said. “The people that stormed the Capitol building went there with good intentions. What happened? Five people are dead. When does this crap stop? … Everybody’s got to grow up and start paying attention, and being family again in the community like it’s always been.”

The board voted 3-2 to approve the $66,680.75 in payment, with Anderson, Britz and Commissioner Gretchen Janssen voted to support, while Koskela and Vice Chair Tom Tikkanen voted against.

COVID Restrictions

The debate over COVID restrictions also extended to a non-binding resolution that would have declared Houghton County to be a “First Amendment sanctuary county” and expressed support for local businesses. The resolution stated the board would not provide financial support or pass an ordinance for anything that would “single out, harm, (or) discriminate businesses that reopened with “responsible PPE and social distancing.” Delta County approved the resolution at its board meeting Monday night.

Britz objected to several parts. After research, he could not back the assertion about “unconstitutional directives” from the state. Since an October state Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the 1945 law Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had issued orders under for much of the pandemic, subsequent orders have come through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services under emergency authority created by the legislature after the 1918 pandemic.

Another clause, which stated the state MDHHS and Liquor Control Commission were working only “to advance the political control of the governor,” was speculation, Britz said.

As he did last year with a symbolic resolution to make Houghton County a “Second Amendment sanctuary,” Britz also said he could not back the part regarding funding or ordinances, which if applied would restrict the sheriff’s department and prosecuting attorney from doing their jobs, he said.

“I will absolutely vote yes on anything that says ‘We want businesses open,'” Britz said. “I can’t support the terminology in this.”

Tikkanen said he had gone to Cafe Rosetta shortly after being notified about the man with a gun. By the time he arrived, the man was gone, Tikkanen said.

The man was not from Houghton County, said Tikkanen, who said he had relayed that the person should not do that again. That kind of public posturing only serves to scare people, he said.

“If you feel that need to do it, I have a suggestion to you: Go to the Army recruiting office, and they’ll send you to a place where you can haul a weapon around like that on a daily basis,” he said.

The board did not act on the resolution. Tikkanen said he would like to collaborate with Britz on language that would be acceptable.

“The bottom line is, residents do want a statement from the county, or some sort of response to Lansing,” he said.

Defending the Health Department

More than 100 people attended the meeting via Zoom. Some made their feelings known via display names incorporating statements such as “Support WUPHD” or “Defund WUPHD.”

The majority of people who spoke during public comment at the end of the meeting backed the department.

Barry Fink read a letter from the board of directors of the League of Women Voters of the Copper Country supporting the staff of the WUPHD.

“It is their responsibility to protect public health by responding to situations where the potential for a spread of COVID-19 is a risk to the community,” she said. “And we thank them for doing that job for the safety of us all.”

Erik Killunen, who led a rally in front of the courthouse against the restrictions and purchased a full-page ad in the Daily Mining Gazette with more than 700 signatures attacking the WUPHD, applauded Britz’s remarks about believing people should be able to make their own decisions, though overlooking his point about abiding by the orders.

“Roy, your wisdom and your words should be canonized,” he said. “And I think it’s a path forward for our community where we can promote healing. If our health department will leave our businesses alone that choose to open up without mandates, and–“

“Shut the f— up!” resident Bruce Woodry interjected, in a statement directed to Kinnunen.

Kiilunen went on to say the department giving a “wink and a nod” to the crowd would help ease tensions. He then paraphrased an apocryphal quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson about ignoring unjust laws.

Resident William Keith compared withholding funding from the WUPHD to withholding funding for sewage maintenance, in that you would notice “pretty fast, and in some unpleasant ways.” He also said the restrictions largely make sense, and are aimed at reducing the spread of the disease.

“If you want businesses to survive the pandemic, then we need to end the pandemic,” he said. “That means we need vaccinations. Business is down right now, not just because of restrictions, but because people are staying in. They’re not going out. They’re afraid to congregate, and for really good reasons.”

Former 97th District Court Judge Mark Wisti reminded the board it cannot overrule state law with a resolution. It would have all the legal force of one commending the Houghton High School hockey team for winning a tournament, he said.

“You’ve got people walking with guns in front of the Cafe Rosetta?” he said. “For God’s sake, let’s stop this. This is just silliness. And you’re going to pass this resolution? It means nothing. It has no legal effect.”

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