ST. JOSEPH — Despite Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order mandating that, as of July 13, face coverings be worn at all indoor venues, some Southwest Michigan residents continue to enter stores and restaurants without a face mask.
“It’s very tough to enforce, and we’re not going to solve it through enforcement,” said Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit.
He said that since an Information Hotline and an online tip form were put on the Berrien County Health Department’s and sheriff’s department’s websites, dozens of tips and complaints have come in about customers and, in some cases, store employees, not wearing face masks.
“It’s a challenge across the country,” said Gillian Conrad, communications manager for the health department. “This is tricky, and I agree with Chuck. We know our law enforcement resources are not unlimited.”
Heit said the health department and sheriff’s office set up the tip form to alleviate a barrage of calls to the Berrien County Dispatch Center regarding non-compliance with the mask order. Tips and complaints are then turned over to the police agency in the jurisdiction in which the complaint originated.
Conrad said if the complaint is about a restaurant or other facility that the health department regulates, someone from the health department will respond. Grocery stores are regulated by the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, so those complaints go to the state.
Information regarding the issue is available online at michigan.gov/covidworkplacesafety.
Conrad said the health department has received “many, many” tips and complaints about non-compliance with the mask order.
“Most are regarding gas stations and grocery stores, about both customers and employees not wearing masks,” she said.
Heit and Conrad said they are focusing on education and information.
“We’re not taking an aggressive approach. We’re taking an educate and warn approach,” Heit said.
Conrad said in many cases someone from the health department will make a phone call or pay a visit to store owners and managers.
“We’re trying to educate people about the importance of a mask from a public health perspective,” she said. “Aside from social distancing, masking is probably the next best public health tool we have. We don’t have to feel defenseless against this virus. We have tools in our toolbox and masking is a very important one.”
Heit said one tricky aspect of enforcing the mask order is the exception for people who medically cannot wear a face mask.
“There’s nothing that spells it out specifically. There’s no set standard for what amounts to ‘can’t tolerate’ a mask. A lot of stores, if you walk in without a mask, will assume that you can’t wear one. They should be asking,” Heit said.
Due to privacy laws, however, a non-mask wearer does not have to disclose details about any medical condition preventing them from wearing a mask.
Heit said if a customer has a concern about a worker not wearing a mask, they should direct their concern to the store manager rather than take it upon themself to confront a store worker.
Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic said he has encouraged law enforcement to respond to complaints by residents about people violating the mask order, and he intends to prosecute cases, if the facts back up the charge.
“I realize there are loopholes, but I believe we have to respond to complaints, educate, warn and then cite, if need be,” Sepic said. “I think it’s important for the public to know law enforcement is vigilant on this issue and sees it as important for public safety. While I don’t believe I’ve seen any tickets come through for mask violations, I do know police agencies are responding to the tips.”