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Michigan Republicans vote to block emergency alerts for COVID orders

stay-at-home order alert
Michigan used its emergency cell phone notification system to announce a COVID-19 stay home order on March 23, 2020. (Screenshot)

LANSING — Michigan’s Republican-led Senate on Wednesday gave final approval to legislation aiming to bar the state from sending emergency alerts to announce new laws or executive orders unless there is an immediate threat to life or personal property. 

The bill is a response to COVID-19 cell phone alerts sent last year by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration, including messages announcing stay-home and mask mandates early in the pandemic. 

But state police say those alerts were sent through a separate system not covered by the legislation, and Whitmer’s office made clear that she will veto the measure, which was approved Wednesday by a  20-16 party-line vote in the state Senate.

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Sponsoring Rep. Bradley Slagh, R-Zeeland, has argued that “overuse” of emergency alerts could lead residents to turn off cell phone warnings. In committee testimony earlier this year, he said the legislation was inspired by residents upset by a mask mandate alert in July 2020.

“Whether you agree or disagree with the mask mandate, there's a concern for me and for many is the overuse of a system that's designed to truly protect our people,” Slagh told colleagues. “And the concern that I have is that we, we, or others become numb to legitimate emergencies, maybe even creating a boy who cried wolf situation.”

The Republican-led House approved the measure in March in a 63-47 vote. 

The legislation would limit use of a Public Threat Alert system lawmakers created in 2016 following a shooting spree in Kalamazoo. But state police said that system was not used to announce COVID orders, which were sent through a separate Integrated Public Alert and Warning System.

Regardless, Whitmer does not intend to sign the measure into law, according to her office, who said Wednesday the governor opposes any attempt to “politicize this pandemic” or hamstring future administrations. 

“When minutes and hours mean the difference between life and death, it is absolutely critical that our state has the ability to use every available tool in the toolbox to save lives,” Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said in a statement. 

“At a time when misinformation spreads so quickly online, the state’s alert system ensures that Michiganders have the most up-to-date information at their fingertips to keep themselves and their families safe during an emergency situation.”

In debate Wednesday, Senate Democrats criticized legislation as a political overreaction emblematic of misplaced priorities in Lansing. 

“Getting information out about an emergent public threat is not some sort of communist plot,” said Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor. “It's not some sort of threat on our liberty. It’s just good government. A helpful warning about a deadly pandemic.”

To date, more than 20,000 Michigan residents have died of COVID-19, according to the state health department. There have been more than 946,000 confirmed cases since early 2020, but Michigan is now faring better than most states. There are no longer any statewide health orders or mandates in place. 

Slagh, the Republican bill sponsor, has said he wants to limit the use of state alerts to immediate emergencies like acts of terrorism, mass shootings, natural disasters, industrial explosions, train derailments and announcements of missing and endangered individuals. 

But a state police spokesperson said Wednesday the Public Threat Alert system his legislation would change has only been used once since it was created five years ago. 

“In October 2016, at the request of the Eaton County Sheriff’s Department, a Public Threat Alert was issued for Eaton, Ingham and Clinton counties in reference to a man believed to be a threat to himself, the public and police,” spokesperson Shanon Banner told Bridge Michigan in an email. 

In legislative debate,  Democrats had questioned whether the legislation would actually prevent the type of alerts the Whitmer administration sent out last year to announce COVID orders. 

Language now heading to Whitmer does not prohibit the state from using the alert system to announce a new law or order 

Under the legislation now heading to Whitmer, the government could use the Public Threat Alert system to announce a new law or order if it is “necessary” to respond to an imminent or “nearly immediate” threat of life or property. 

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