By DEBRA HAIGHT
ST. JOSEPH – Berrien County Commissioners have voted to extend the Local State of Emergency until the end of April. The county initially established the local state of emergency on March 26 in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic crisis.
Life in Southwest Michigan and throughout the state and country has changed dramatically over the last few weeks. Schools and colleges are closed, many businesses including restaurants are shuttered and people have been ordered to shelter in place for at least the next few weeks.
A county press release late last week noted that extending the Local State of Emergency allows county officials to better coordinate the response to COVID-19 which has caused sometimes deadly respiratory illnesses. As of the first of this week, there had been nearly 60 cases reported in Berrien County with one death.
“The action allows the Berrien County Emergency Operation Center to continue to operate and support the efforts of the Berrien County Health Department and Spectrum Health Lakeland and to continue to provide vital resources already in place to deal with this pandemic,” County Board Chairman Mac Elliott said.
“The local State of Emergency is extended to provide the funding and resources at the county level. This does not change or effect any of the protective measures that are already in place that are set forth in Governor Whitmer’s current Executive Orders.”
The initial Local State of Emergency was declared March 26 and ran for the traditional seven days. The extension approved last week authorizes county officials to expend funds as needed to fight the pandemic.
Berrien County officials continued to stress the importance of heeding the current Executive Orders in place throughout the state of Michigan, including the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order 2020-21 issued March 23.
Late last week, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Director Robert Gordon issued an Emergency Order setting a civil penalty of up to $1,000 and a process for referral to licensing agencies for violations of Executive Orders. Criminal penalties for violations also will remain an option for prosecutors.
Berrien County law enforcement agencies are authorized to investigate potential violations of Executive Orders to help control the epidemic and protect the public’s health, county officials said. Those with questions or concerns regarding the Executive Orders can call the Berrien County COVID-19 Response Hotline at 1-800-815-5485.
Last week’s county board meeting also featured two actions to assist the Berrien County Health Department which has been at the forefront of the county’s COVID-19 fight. Commissioners approved adding a new position, a public health investigation specialist, which is being funded by the state.
Commissioners also accepted additional funding from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the health department to help offset costs incurred with fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The health department will be getting an additional $203,000 to fund programs.
In other COVID-19 news, Gov. Whitmer announced April 2 that public and private K-12 schools will remain closed through the end of the school year. She had initially in mid-March ordered them closed through April 6.
“My number one priority right now is protecting Michigan families from the spread of COVID-19. For the sake of our students, their families, and the more than 100,000 teachers and staff in our state, I have made the difficult decision to close our school facilities for the remainder of the school year,” Gov. Whitmer said.
Her order set guidelines for the distance e-learning being done by many school districts as well as allows for high school seniors to graduate this spring and for other students to be able to advance to the next grade this fall. Local school districts are being asked to present their e-learning plans to their intermediate school districts this week.
Her order gives school districts flexibility in what they are doing in terms of e-learning but asks that the plans adopted are appropriate, equitable and accessible for students and families. She also postponed state and national assessment tests and gave districts the opportunity to start the fall semester before Labor Day.
Two area community colleges also announced last week that distance learning will continue for students through the end of the spring semester in early May. Lake Michigan College and Southwestern Michigan College initially switched to distance learning in mid-March. Andrews University already announced they were doing distance learning through April.