New Coronavirus Orders Affect Everything From Meetings To Taxes To Dental/Medical/Salon Appointments
By Beth Milligan | March 22, 2020
Federal and state officials responding to the coronavirus pandemic announced a number of new measures to try and slow the disease’s spread and offer financial relief to residents this week – affecting everything from government meetings to tax and mortgage payments to evictions to dental, medical, and hair/nail salon appointments. Governor Gretchen Whitmer also extended the date through which bars, restaurants, gyms, and other public-facing establishments will be closed or restricted by two more weeks, from March 30 to April 13.
Whitmer issued an executive order Wednesday suspending the portion of the Open Meetings Act (OMA) requiring public bodies to meet in a physical location and to have one or more members physically present. The order, which remains in effect through at least April 15, allows government boards to now meet virtually, such as by telephone or video conferencing. The rules stipulate that two-way communication must be maintained – allowing all board members and public members to hear each other – and that public and media participation in meetings must still be ensured, including allowing audience members to text, email, call, or speak virtually to provide public comment.
Grand Traverse County commissioners met Friday morning – the majority in person, with Commissioner Betsy Coffia participating remotely and Chair Rob Hentschel absent – and approved suspending their board rules that ban commissioners from remote participation in meetings. Administrator Nate Alger said future meetings would be held remotely and that the public could comment on agenda items by emailing email@example.com, texting 231-313-8507, and participating virtually by phone or Internet (links and phone numbers will be provided at the top of each meeting packet). “The public is going to have several options to interact with you through this process,” Alger told commissioners. “I think that the public at large has generally accepted the fact that this is our way of business right now in today’s environment.”
The rapid switch to virtual meetings may not be a seamless transition, however. At Friday’s commission meeting – with only one commissioner attending virtually – staff struggled with technical issues including commissioners not being able to hear one another, forgetting to mute or turn back on mics, and trying to speak over microphone feedback. Alger acknowledged there would likely be an adjustment period as governments make the move to virtual meetings, but said he expected things to improve over time. “We’re going to get better at it and we’ll get much more fluid,” he said.
Traverse City commissioners are also transitioning to a virtual format starting with Monday's 7pm meeting and continuing for the foreseeable future. Commission meetings will be streamed live on channel 191 and online here for virtual participants; the meetings will be audio only, with no video feed available of commissioners. A name and photo will appear on screen for city commissioners and key staff when they are speaking. Individuals wishing to make public comment can call 312-626-6799 and enter the meeting ID; the meeting ID for Monday's meeting is 173-398-401 and the participant ID is # (just the pound sign). Callers wishing to give public comment can call in before the meeting starts and wait in a “virtual waiting room.” Going forward, the call-in number and participant ID to give public comment will remain the same; however, the meeting ID will change with each meeting. These instructions will be included in every official published agenda of the city commission. Those calling in will be able to hear the audio of the city commission meeting, but their microphones will be muted.
When the commission accepts public comment, in the order calls were received, the city clerk will identify the caller by the last four digits of their telephone number and ask if they would like to make a comment. While not required, the city asks that those who aren't planning to give public comment refrain from calling in and instead listen to the meeting online here or on channel 191. Public comment is planned to be taken at the beginning of each meeting so that commissioners and listeners can hear it before actions are taken, but so that it doesn't disrupt the virtual meeting flow when agenda items are being discussed. Mayor Jim Carruthers will call meetings to order, with the city clerk facilitating the meeting and calling on commissioners/staff who “virtually raise their hand,” which will occur through the Zoom platform managed by the city clerk.
In addition to relaxed rules for government meetings, Whitmer also announced a number of executive orders this week affecting local businesses, including expanding childcare options in the state by lifting some regulatory restrictions and allowing certain properties – like school facilities – to be used as disaster relief childcare centers. The order was issued to provide more childcare options in particular for workers in health care, emergency medical services, law enforcement, and other essential services who “require child care services for their children, particularly when schools are closed.” Whitmer also gave distilleries the green light to produce ethanol-based hand sanitizers this week; Mammoth Distilling, Iron Fish Distillery, Traverse City Whiskey Company, and Grand Traverse Distillery are among the local distilleries who’ve started producing sanitizer.
Another order issued Friday restricts non-essential medical and dental procedures during Michigan’s state of emergency period. Medical procedures that must be postponed include joint replacement, bariatric surgery, and cosmetic surgery, except for emergency or trauma-related surgery where postponement would significantly impact the health, safety, and welfare of the patient. For dental offices that are still open, cosmetic or aesthetic procedures should be postponed, including: veneers; teeth bleaching; cosmetic bonding; routine hygiene appointments; any procedures that do not relieve pain or infection, restore oral function, or are not trauma-related; initiation of any crowns, bridges, or dentures that do not relieve pain or infection, restore oral function, or are not trauma-related; any periodontal plastic surgery; extraction of asymptomatic non-carious teeth; and recall visits for healthy patients.
Whitmer also released an order Saturday temporarily closing all non-essential personal care services through April 13, including hair, nail, tanning, massage, spa, tattoo, body art, and piercing services, as well as any similar services that require individuals to be within six feet of each other. The order does not include services necessary for medical treatment as determined by a licensed medical provider. "COVID-19 has created an unprecedented challenge to our way of life as Michiganders...I know these changes will be hard, but they are temporary, and they are necessary to slow the spread of the virus and help save lives," Whitmer said. The order replaces an earlier version that ordered bars, restaurants, and similar businesses to close or restrict their services through March 30, with all affected businesses in the state now shuttered through at least April 13.
Both the state and federal government have also taken a number of steps to reduce financial distress for residents during the pandemic. Whitmer signed an order Friday temporarily suspending evictions and allowing tenants and mobile home owners to remain in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic even if they are unable to pay their rent. The order also relieves courts from certain statutory restrictions to enable them to delay eviction-related proceedings until after the COVID-19 emergency has passed. The order takes effect immediately and will remain active until April 17. President Donald Trump also said this week that he is suspending foreclosures and evictions on homeowners until at least the end of April. Though the order applies specifically to homeowners with mortgages backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or the Federal Housing Administration, other mortgage lenders are expected to follow suit (homeowners are encouraged to contact their individual mortgage lender for details).
Other financial relief measures include a decision by the Treasury to change the U.S. tax filing and payment deadline from April 15 to July 15 for all taxpayers and businesses in the country. The administration also lowered interest rates for all federally held student loans to zero percent for at least 60 days, and is offering borrowers the option to suspend payments for the same amount of time. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate is racing to finalize a massive stimulus package – likely to come in at $1-2 trillion – that could pass as soon as Monday and is anticipated to include measures for sending direct financial payments to Americans. Congress and Trump already approved another coronavirus relief bill earlier this week that provides paid sick leave to workers affected by the virus, free COVID-19 testing (including for the uninsured), and expanded unemployment funding and food aid to states.Comment