Gilchrist asks GOP leaders for mask mandate as Senate returns to Lansing

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II called Wednesday for Republican legislative leaders to enact and enforce a mask requirement inside the House and Senate chambers at all times, saying he fears for the safety of his family and others when lawmakers do not wear a face covering.

The Democrat presides over session in the Senate, which will return Thursday to start passing bills following a Michigan Supreme Court ruling that invalidated Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus orders. The state health department requires masks at indoor non-residential gatherings, but the Legislature is seen as exempt from that order and the governor’s prior face covering order - first issued in April - because it is a separate branch of government.

Though legislators have been encouraged to wear masks, many Republicans either do not or they remove them to speak or while seated alone at their desk. Democrats are more vigilant about using masks, though some remove them to give formal remarks during session.

In an “open letter,” Gilchrist urged Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake and House Speaker Lee Chatfield of Levering to require face coverings. He said he is the father of young children and has lost 23 people to COVID-19.

Masks, he wrote, are a “matter of science” and are proven to be an effective, simple way to slow the spread of the virus.

Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann said he has reiterated to his caucus members that they should wear a mask on the floor, in committee hearings and in their offices. He believes senators do try to wear a mask in the chamber and does not feel a mandate, rule or regulation is needed, she said.

Chatfield's spokesman has previously cited constitutional issues compelling elected lawmakers to wear face coverings, though Democrats have noted legislators must adhere to various rules in the chambers. President Donald Trump, who is recovering from the virus, has cast doubt on the widely accepted scientific conclusions of his own administration strongly urging the use of face coverings.

“The decision to wear a mask demonstrates that you respect the safety of everyone around you and everyone that they care about,” Gilchrist said. "So let us model the safest behavior with the hopes that others would do the same.”

Whitmer has called Shirkey an “anti-masker” because he came out against codifying a mask requirement into law after the high court’s decision and instead encouraged people to follow whatever policies are set by businesses, organizations and schools.

“The majority leader would say because he doesn't support a statewide mandate does not mean he is anti-mask,” McCann said.

At least four members of the 148-seat Legislature have had a confirmed case of COVID-19. A fifth likely died of the virus in March, though he was not tested for it, his mother has said.

House Minority Leader Christine Greig of Farmington Hills recently said requiring members to wear face coverings is a “no-brainer” given a House rule requiring men to have neckties. “As elected leaders, it is critically important that we lead by example and stop the politicization of this life-saving guidance,” she said.