Leaning on reason: Health officer doesn’t want to ‘strongarm’ people over need to wear masks
Ann Hepfer doesn’t want to be the county’s health cop.
The Tuscola County Health Department’s health officer prefers trying to reason with people about the need to wear masks, wash hands and socially distance in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19. So while an executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allows for fines of up to $500 for people not wearing a mask or for stores not enforcing the wearing of masks, Hepfer doesn’t want to be the one enforcing that mandate.
Even though both Whitmer and state Department of Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon say state law gives Hepfer and health officers like her around the state the power to enforce the mask mandate, Hepfer’s not keen on going there.
“We don’t want to strongarm anyone,” she said in a report given Thursday to the Tuscola County Board of Commissioners.
She said usually she or her staff can explain the reasons behind the rules and people choose to follow them because they don’t want to risk the liability.
“If they want to hold an event with 400 people,” she said, “they’d better check their liability insurance first, especially if it is going to be indoors.”
She said she can always rely on the public health code, if necessary. Hepfer said the department also has its own lawyer to help with this, as needed, as well as the prosecuting attorneys from Huron and Tuscola counties.
“It is not something that I take lightly,” she said. “I certainly do not want to do that. I don’t want to be the main enforcement. That has never been our role. At this point, we haven’t had to get there, let’s hope we never have to. So far we have been able to mitigate and come up with some solution to some issues.”
Since the governor issued her latest order concerning the wearing of masks, Hepfer said her office has been fielding about 15 calls a day from people voicing complaints or concerns about it.
“There are no clear instructions (for enforcing the mask mandate),” she said. “Every one of us as health officers have asked the same questions. We are waiting for further instructions. Can we mandate? Do you mandate, saying you have to have a doctor’s order (to waive the mask requirement)? People are going online and downloading their own thing that says they have a waiver and they don’t have to wear a mask. That’s not accurate. You can’t do that. That is not official. And stores have been told that is not official.”
She said she also knows there are people who, once they get in a store, take their masks down.
“If you want to fight with me, alright,” she said. “I am getting tired of fighting with people and arguing with them, politely. This is an educational moment and we are all learning from this moment.”
So far, what Hepfer and the health department have been doing is working. As of Wednesday, the county had added just two new positive cases in the past week, albeit with one additional death. That raised the county’s total to 234 confirmed cases and 27 deaths. Huron County added 15 positive cases over the same week, raising its total to 75 confirmed cases.
But Hepfer isn’t sure those trends of increasingly fewer positive cases and deaths will continue.
“We are very lucky, at this point, that our numbers have stayed where they are,” she said. “I think they probably will not.”
Testing continues, she said, with the health department testing 84 people last week. That raises the total number of residents tested to 7,475. Huron County, over the same time period, has tested 3,122 people. Lately, Hepfer said, many of those being tested are due to have elective surgery or to fly somewhere else in the United States. Testing is required for either.
And while Hepfer said wearing masks when in public is a key step to keeping the virus at bay, and eliminating the need for testing, she’s not going to end the 8-10 a.m. testing being offered at the health department parking lot, 1309 Cleaver Road in Caro. Instead, she’s planning to continue to offer that through August.
“I understand people don’t like the mask idea,” she said. “They don’t think it is fair that everybody has to wear them. My role is to ensure, as much as I can, that it is done, to the best of my ability.
“There is a lot of evidence out there that if you wear the mask it will cut down on the transmission. My whole goal and the goal in all of this is we don’t want people to get sick and in the hospital. Right now hospitals are not overwhelmed. My other goal is to get those schools opened in the fall, with as little infection as we can. If we can stay like this, with just two new cases, we could. But I don’t know if we can.”
Mark Haney is a staff writer for The Advertiser. He can be reached at email@example.com.