Schor bucks Health Department over City Hall mask mandate

Mayor lifts requirement as COVID-19 cases surge


Despite a substantial spike in COVID-19 cases across Greater Lansing and against the advice of leading health officials, newly reelected Mayor Andy Schor has lifted a universal mask mandate at City Hall — even while local hospitals are nearly full.

Last Thursday, both McLaren and Sparrow hospitals were reportedly at or close to 100% capacity while the COVID-19 virus embarked on a substantial pre-winter surge in Lansing. On Friday, a citywide memorandum — a direct result of a mayoral directive from Schor — went out to all city employees: “Vaccinated individuals are no longer required to wear a mask,” it read.

The memo didn’t include any explanation for the change in masking protocols for vaccinated staff, which effectively reversed a universal mask mandate issued by Schor’s administration in August. It also noted that daily health screenings for employees would be suspended until further notice beginning this week. Temperatures are also no longer being checked at the lobby.

One key problem: Guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Ingham County Health Department all recommend masks be worn.

And now Schor is facing criticism for reversing a policy that was designed to protect the public.

“I would recommend exactly what the CDC recommends — and that’s masking indoors in public places for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in areas determined to have a high risk of transmission,” Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail told City Pulse on Tuesday. “And that’s here. If there was a level of transmission beyond high, we are just about there right now.”

Every county in Michigan (and across most of the Midwest) was still ranked in the CDC’s “high risk” category for coronavirus transmission this week — which specifically comes along with guidance to implement indoor mask mandates in public.

In Ingham County, that spike was evidenced by 1,023 COVID-19 cases and 10 related deaths tracked in the last week, according to recent state data. Vail said that the county’s hospitals were still “nearing capacity” this week with 142 hospitalized COVID-19 patients hospitalized.

“As a community leader, we have an obligation to follow public health recommendations,” Vail said. “I just don’t understand the logic here: Why would you put a mask requirement in place in August and then take it away now? We’re seeing this giant upward surge, which will invariably put stress on our health system. That’s a key reason why we should keep precautions in place.”

A spokesman for Schor’s office didn’t offer much of an explanation for what motivated the shift, except to point out that CDC guidelines only “recommend” rather than “require” masks be worn. He said he was unable to offer more background on the decision at this time. 

The spokesman said that city officials looked at what other communities in Greater Lansing are doing about masks before reversing the mandate. 

Masks are optional at the State Capitol as well as municipal offices in Dimondale, Dewitt, Grand Ledge, Mason, Delhi Charter Township and Lansing Charter Township, while universal masking mandates are in place in Meridian Township, East Lansing and the court buildings in Mason.

Vail said nobody in Schor’s administration consulted the Health Department prior to enacting the change.

She added: “All workplaces are public places. It’s not your home, so that’s a public place. I’m seeing people wear masks at fast food restaurants. Even McDonald’s has a mask policy. The bottom line here is that the CDC recommends that you mask while indoors and it also encourages our community leaders to make sure that they are the ones leading that charge.”

On Sunday, Lansing City Council President Peter Spadafore followed Schor’s lead and lifted requirements that face masks be worn at Council meetings. But after a conversation with Vail later that afternoon, he reversed course on Monday and reimplemented the mask mandate.

“I made a premature decision and that was a mistake,” Spadafore explained to City Pulse. “In accordance with CDC recommendations, it’s still important that everyone in public spaces wear masks as part of a layered prevention strategy. Now is just not the time to let down our guard.”

Spadafore can only dictate policies on the 10th Floor of City Hall, which includes the Council chambers and its adjoining committee rooms and offices. Masks are still optional for vaccinated visitors across the rest of the building, including the 54A District Court and the Clerk’s Office.

“For the last 19 months, there have been inconsistent policies everywhere, a patchwork of different regulations,” Spadafore added. “But I do think it’s important to consider CDC recommendations and implement them with as much fidelity as possible. I felt compelled to do anything that I could to make sure everyone felt safe. This is about protecting our neighbors.”

Although Schor has no immediate plans to again require face masks at City Hall, a spokesman for his office emphasized that his department directors still have the discretion to require they be worn. He also emphasized that masks are still required for anyone who has not been vaccinated for COVID-19, though employees and visitors will not be asked to provide proof of vaccinations.

Schor told this reporter last week that he had been itching to get rid of the mask mandate at City Hall for weeks. He has also said that he has no plans to require vaccinations for city staff. A federal mandate that would require those shots at all large businesses — including the city — remains in legal limbo after it was temporarily halted by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Current CDC guidance, however, still calls for those 2 or older who are not fully vaccinated to wear masks in indoor public spaces. It also notes that masks should be required even of fully vaccinated people in public spaces located in regions of “substantial” or “high” transmission.

In Ingham County, masks are legally required in educational facilities like schools and daycares, as well as when riding public transportation like on Capital Area Transportation Authority buses. Elsewhere, they’re only “recommended,” though Vail expects that advice to be taken seriously.

She said a strict county order would be unenforceable and untenable for many residents, leaving her to rely on employers and elected leaders to set an example for the local community.

“There’s no way to enforce it,” she explained. “We’ve been living in this COVID-19 situation for two years. People don’t need to be — and shouldn’t be — ordered to know the right thing to do.”

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