Just fine? Commissioners consider negating health dept. fines

With new positive coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases hovering at 200-plus a week, the Tuscola County Board of Commissioners wants to undercut the efforts of the Tuscola County Health Dept.

The county recorded 204 new cases last week, after weeks of 213, 232 and 239 new cases, with at least eight new deaths from the virus in the past week. And while state officials want to continue orders keeping bars and restaurants closed for another 12 days, the commissioners have decided to consider cutting the fines health officials can charge violators.

During Monday’s Committee of the Whole session (at such meetings commissioners can discuss issues but take no action), District 5 Commissioner Dan Grimshaw raised questions about the health department’s fee structure – namely what fines it can assess businesses that violate the health code. He wants to drop it to $1.

Right now, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and/or health department can assess fines of up to $1,000 a day for health code violators.

“We’re doing everything we can to help local businesses,” he said. “And yet we are hanging a Damocles sword over their heads. If you violate the health department rules we are going to assess you $1,000 a day for violating a health department rule. It’ll put them out of business. We need to take away the sword.”

He said he doesn’t want to be “party to assessing folks for trying to survive.” They will consider this measure on Thursday, even in light of the fact no business in Tuscola or Huron county has been fined for violating the health code or the orders from the MDHHS concerning COVID-19.

District 2 Commissioner Thomas Bardwell admitted the commissioners were looking to “circumvent” the health department and health code and put the power in the hands of local businesses.

“It should be an individual choice, to some degree,” he said.

District 3 Commissioner Kim Vaughan said health department health officer Ann Hepfer has been doing something like that, but Grimshaw wants to take that out of her hands and put it in the hands of the commissioners.

“If we take away the penalty of $1,000 for selling food and the most that can be charged is $1 a day for up to 10 days,” he said, “and the maximum penalty is $10, then you have a business decision to make.”

Grimshaw also said he wants to lower the health department’s reinspection fee, now at $108, to just $1. 

“I don’t know what to do,” Vaughan said. “We just can’t sit here and let these businesses die. Maybe we can’t do anything but be vocal.”

Grimshaw also took aim at health department funding, asking what is the minimum money required of the county.

“We don’t control the director of the Department of Health,” he said, “but we do control their finances, or at least portions of it.”

All of this came minutes after Hepfer had warned that positive cases, testing (at 13-percent-plus positivity) and hospitalizations remain high for yet another week, with regional hospitals running at the edge of capacity. “We still need to keep the infection rates lower,” she said, “if we can.”

The week’s new cases were evenly spread across age groups, with 13 new positive cases in ages 0-19; 36 new cases in ages 20-29; 47 new cases among ages 30-39; 36 new cases in the 40-49 age group; 40 in the 50-59 age group; 30 in the 60-69 group; and 53 cases in age 70 and above. The bulk of the latter group are in long-term or foster care.

Cases continue to surface in those facilities, she said, because once-a-week testing of long-term care facility workers doesn’t work. People can test negative and develop the virus days after that and pass it along to residents.

“When you are only testing people once a week, you are going to miss people,” she said. “That is why we are seeing sports teams testing more frequently, some every day, some every other day, or something like that.”

Hepfer also said she receives complaints daily of people reporting to work while ill. “Employees are not safe, no matter where they work, because there are so many who are sick and are showing up,” she said.

Again, Hepfer also stressed wearing masks and keeping 6 feet of space from others. “That is what increases the likelihood that you’re not going to become infected,” she said. “But you can’t always do that. There are so many workplaces where 6 feet is not reasonable. I understand that.”

She said health experts are warning this surge in cases may last until sometime into February. “Let’s hope not,” she said.

“This is trying on all of us,” she said. “I am really concerned about our economy. I am concerned about what we are going to get.”

She likened what has been done since March to building a dam or a flood wall. Now, she said, the wall has a hole. But a tsunami is coming and what comes next will be cleaning up and recovery, for all sectors of the economy.
“There is so much more that we have to do,” she said. “We need to have a long-term plan in place for how we are going to deal with the needs.

“If we don’t get some relief packages soon, we are going to crumble.” 

Mark Haney is a staff writer for The Advertiser. He can be reached at [email protected].

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