Residents ask Cass County board to oppose potential mask mandates

CASSOPOLIS — Thursday evening, cars spilled out of the Cass County Road Commission’s parking lot into the street and onto the Cass County Fairgrounds. Once inside, bodies packed together, overflowing out of the meeting room and into the lobby as dozens of residents stood in line waiting to make their voices heard to county government.

Thursday, the Cass County Board of Commissioners hosted a special meeting to gather public input on COVID-19 strategies, including masking, vaccination and personal choice. The meeting resulted in nearly three hours of public comment, impassioned speeches and pleas from residents for the board not to issue a new mask mandate either in the schools — as neighboring Berrien County has done — or for the general public. Board members clarified that those commissioners cannot issue or override mask mandates, as that power lies with the Cass/Van Buren Health Department, according to the Michigan Public Health Code, which authorizes local public health officials to “take actions and make determinations necessary or appropriate to carry out the local health department’s functions to protect the public health and prevent disease.”

Currently, Cass County has no such mask mandate in place.

During Thursday’s meeting, more than 50 public comments were taken, the vast majority of which opposed any sort of mask mandate.

Some argued that a mask mandate would impede personal rights.

“We want to ensure we maintain the rights to decide how to take care of ourselves,” said Anthony Davis, of Vandalia. “I don’t want a mandate. I don’t want the government to overstep its bounds and tell me how to take care of myself.”

“It’s sad I have to be here today to defend this topic. I think it’s disgusting,” said Brittany File, of LaGrange Township. “The people have the voice, and we need to be able to make our own personal health care choices. I’m not going to ask for permission. Those are the choices I’m going to make for my family and myself. Mandates are not laws.”

Others spoke about how they believed masks were harming their children and interfering with their learning abilities in school.

“Children have become pawns in a political game,” said Erin Westrate, of LaGrange Township and a teacher at Cassopolis Public Schools. “Part of teaching children to become empathetic adults is being able to read and effectively respond to other people. This cannot be done effectively done with masks covering half of their faces.”

Of the dozens of public comments, fewer than five residents in attendance said they would support a mask mandate. Those who did support a potential mandate said residents should trust public health experts and their recommendations.

“When I break a bone, I go to the doctor, I don’t go to the county board of commissioners,” said Julie Dye, of Wayne Township. “When [commissioners] insert themselves into the public health sphere, you are crossing the line of authority. I say, please stay in your lane.”

Following the meeting, all present commissioners said they supported resident’s ability to choose for themselves whether or not to mask or vaccinate themselves or their children. Commissioner Skip Dyes was absent.

Vice-Chair Michael Grice said the board was never planning on issuing or supporting a mask mandate, and instead hosted Thursday’s meeting to gather public input before presenting resolutions at its next meeting.

“We wanted to hear from citizens to understand and confirm how they are feeling before we work on some resolutions for the county building,” he said.

Grice and fellow commissioners said the resolutions the board is considering would not support a mask mandate should the health department issue it.

“What I would like to see the county do is put out a motion that says we don’t prefer [a mask mandate] in the county or the state, and I’d like to see policies put out that we don’t require it in the county government or our buildings that that vaccinations aren’t a requirement for employment,” said Commissioner Robert Benjamin.

“We want to support medical autonomy,” added Commissioner Ryan Laylin.

No action was taken at Thursday’s special meeting. The board’s next meeting is 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16.

Until then, Grice said board members would be working with county administration to prepare the resolutions.

“We want people to rest assured that the Cass County Board of Commissioners is not mandating anything,” he said.

The Van Buren/Cass District Health Department could not be reached for comment as of publication.

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