By Mike Kruzman & Jon King /

The resolution that would ease mask restrictions inside of Livingston County government buildings failed to gain passage by the Board of Commissioners.

The resolution came to the full board after being unanimously approved by the General Government Committee last week, following the Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling that invalidated Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders that were passed without legislative extension of the state of emergency. The gathering was actually a hybrid meeting. Due to Monday's Michigan Supreme Court ruling that invalidated Whitmer's Executive Orders immediately, including suspension of the Open Meetings Act, at least five of the commissioners were present in the board chambers for the meeting.

It should be noted that even if the resolution had passed, it would not supersede the recent mandate from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. It would have only gone into effect when the MDHHS’s mandate was no longer active. Additionally, the resolution only would have applied to county government buildings, but not Livingston County court buildings. Local businesses would not have been affected.

At the board’s meeting Tuesday, over 40 people weighed in with their opinion during public comment. A few were in favor of the resolution, with comments pointing towards manipulated scientific data, skewed reporting on numbers and/or that it should be their own choice to cover their face. There were also doubts about the effectiveness of masks.

The majority, however, were against the resolution, including some county officials. LETS Director Greg Kellogg requested that should it pass, that LETS be made an exception. He was joined by Drain Commissioner Brian Jonckheere who told the board, “In 24 years as drain commissioner I think this is the first time I can say I’ve seen a resolution that was put forward without any concern for the staff - the employees of Livingston County. That’s pretty distressing to me…If I have one person go out from my sanitary crew, we could easily have 2 or 3 other people quarantined and have almost nobody available to service the thousands of residents that are on our waste water systems.” County Planning Director Kathleen Kline-Hudson was also against it, and cited an employee survey that went around after the resolution was introduced. 63% of respondents were against the resolution. She said voluntary mask use is not prudent, and if the county’s primary concern is to serve the public, they should protect its greatest asset- the employees.

Commissioner Wes Nakagiri introduced the resolution and gave a presentation on why he felt it was necessary. For its scope he pointed out that it would not apply to employees or court buildings. Nakagiri said their response plan elements and additional measures like hiring an epidemiologist have been effective, and face coverings are just one element of it. He referenced a September 11th study of COVID-positive patients from the CDC that questions the effectiveness of mask-compliance. Nakagiri said, “I’m troubled, I’m confused - I think its saying there’s conflict in the data when people who ‘always’ wear a mask comprise 70% of these COVID-positive patients, while people that ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ are down at 3.9% . That to me is a big red flag; and I’m not going to assert this is the truth and other previous studies were not, but I’m just saying this needs to be reconciled before we can confidently say masks are effective.”

The CDC study that Nakagiri referenced may actually indicate the exact opposite conclusion he came to. It shows that more people who tested negative for the coronavirus reported that they “always” wore masks than people who tested positive. Of the 160 survey participants who tested negative, 74.2% reported that they “always” wore a face mask or cloth face covering, while only 70.6% of the 154 participants who tested positive reported that they “always” wore a mask or face covering. The study has also been criticized because of its reliance on self-reporting by participants. Texas A&M University-Texarkana virologist Ben Neuman says three studies, which looked at hundreds of thousands of infected people, all found that mask-wearing reduces the likelihood of contracting coronavirus. He says that unlike the CDC report, these studies didn’t rely on survey data and self-reported rates of mask use.

Commissioner Gary Childs wondered what the point of this was if it wouldn’t go into effect, if passed, because of the MDHHS’s own mandate. Childs, a Democrat, accused Nakagiri, a Republican, of introducing this resolution purely as a political statement. Childs said, “This is just political grandstanding by one member of our board and there are a few people that are going to be lemmings and are gonna follow. It’s just an embarrassment…” Childs went on to say he was glad he wasn’t running for re-election to be a continued part of the board.

Commissioner Bill Green said he was in favor of the resolution because he felt people could make the right decisions for themselves. Green said, “Myself, I wear a mask, my kids wear a mask. I have diabetes, so my immune system is a little lower than others, but I do believe this is a choice by the person and should not be mandated. The Supreme Court mandated the (executive orders) were illegal, and now we’ve got the health department going out and putting it out. I don’t think we’re in an emergency state right now. When there is an emergency, I’m all for supporting it, but I think the people have a choice.”

Also joining in support of the resolution was Commissioner Doug Helzerman, who said while the health and safety of citizens and employees are at the top of their concerns, questioned the effectiveness of masks catching the virus, saying they do nothing for medium or very small particles. That is contrary to the majority of scientific studies, including a September 25th study from the University of California - Davis which indicated "masks and face coverings are effective in reducing the spread of airborne particles."

Commissioner Bob Bezotte thanked Nakagiri for his research and said that while Whitmer made the decision to place COVID-positive patients in nursing homes with the most vulnerable, the state and local health departments both stayed silent. He said the governor was disrespectful in violating everyone’s rights and didn’t attempt to work with the legislature. He added later that with this resolution not superseding the MDHHS’s mandate, that by voting for it they are not putting employees at risk. He said he would, and has, done anything he could for the county employees while Commissioner.

Commissioner Kate Lawrence voted for the resolution in Committee, but said that it was with caveats and concerns. She said she recently experienced a scare after flying on a plane and becoming sick after. Though her test came back negative, Lawrence said worry for what she might have brought to, and upon, her employees made her sick to her stomach. She said they can’t look at their employees one day and tell them “they’re the best,” and then the next day “kick them in the gut” with a resolution like this.

Commissioner Jay Gross echoed Lawrence’s response, while also thanking Nakagiri for his research. Gross said he was also distressed with misinformation going around, wanting to re-iterate that this had nothing to do with non-governmental buildings.

Chairwoman Carol Griffith noted that this was an emotionally charged resolution. She said the county has worked tirelessly in preparing a preparedness and response plan, and making sure we’re safe. Griffith said she thinks it’s premature right now to put others at risk. She said that while the county’s death count is low and people should be proud, if you have a family member or friend who is going through it, as she is now, “one death is too many. I would like to see we do everything possible to protect those around us.”

Before the vote, Nakagiri took a moment to thank his colleagues on the board, and the public, for having a civil discussion. He said in today’s polarized political climate that this is sometimes rare. One dissenter to the resolution gave the board a middle finger during public comment. Nakagiri said he understands that people can look at the same data and draw different conclusions based on their own personal experiences. He said that he holds “no ill will or animus” towards those who hold a different opinion.

The motion to approve the resolution failed by a split 4-4 vote. Nakagiri, Bezotte, Green, and Helzerman voted in favor of dropping the requirements. Childs, Griffith, Lawrence, and Gross voted against.