These 8 States Passed Legislation to Limit Public Health Officials’ Authority

Then-Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton holds up a mask as she gives an update on the state’s preparations for Covid-19 on Feb. 27, 2020, in Cleveland. Acton later resigned from her position and lawmakers approved legislation limiting the department’s authority amid public health emergencies.

Then-Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton holds up a mask as she gives an update on the state’s preparations for Covid-19 on Feb. 27, 2020, in Cleveland. Acton later resigned from her position and lawmakers approved legislation limiting the department’s authority amid public health emergencies. AP Photo/Tony Dejak

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Anger over responses to the pandemic led some legislators to limit health officials’ role in public health emergency mandates.

Backlash over public health officials’ actions during the pandemic drove at least eight states to enact measures limiting their authority in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report.

But these restrictive laws pose a serious risk to public health and undermine effective government response to public health issues, according to the report by the National Association of County and City Health Officials and the Network for Public Health Law.

The report outlines some of the laws enacted by state officials, at times over the objection of governors.

The Ohio legislature, for example, overrode Gov. Mike DeWine’s veto to enact a bill that limits the duration of a public health emergency to 90 days unless extended by the general assembly. The law also allows the state legislature to rescind any order issued by the Ohio Department of Health meant to prevent the spread of contagious or infectious disease and limits the ability of local boards of health to issue isolation and quarantine orders.

Ohio’s public health emergency, enacted in response to the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, is set to expire Wednesday. The bill allowing the state legislature to override the Department of Health’s emergency orders takes effect June 23.

Two new Montana laws give local governing bodies the authority to change or rescind local board of health emergency orders and limit local health boards from enacting city or countywide mandates that prevent businesses from offering goods or services to customers. The Montana law also prevents boards of health from limiting attendance at religious services through emergency orders. 

Jurisdictions across the country wrestled with the legality of restricting capacity at religious events during the pandemic, with the Justice Department eventually getting involved.

Confusion over the new restrictions led the Gallatin City-County Board of Health to abandon a county mask mandate and public gathering restrictions, Health Officer Matt Kelley told Montana Public Radio.

“It really makes it pretty impossible for local health officials to address the pandemic in a meaningful way through rules that affect businesses,” Kelley said.

In addition to eight states—Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah and West Virginia—that have passed restrictive public health legislation, lawmakers in seven other states have proposed similar measures.

Other legislative changes made this year include Kansas lawmakers stripping the governor of the ability to close businesses during a public health emergency and specifying that only local school boards can make decisions regarding the closure or limits on in-person attendance during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

North Dakota lawmakers banned statewide elected officials or health officers from enacting face mask mandates. The law “severely undercuts statewide efforts to respond to pandemics or disasters by creating a piecemeal and uncoordinated system,” the report states. 

The report warns that legislation meant to stop public health agencies from leading the response to health emergencies “creates unforeseen, serious risks to life and health,” while legislation that strips authority from either public health agencies or the state’s executive branch “infringes on the constitutional separation of powers and undermines effective government response.”

Support for the measures were driven in part by “dissatisfaction and anger at perceived overreaches by governors and public health officials in response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” the report notes. The conservative nonprofit organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council, crafted model acts that at least nine states appear to have relied on for bill language, the report states.

The pandemic raised the profile of once-obscure local public health officials, as their decisions about lockdowns or mask orders became political fodder. Burnout became common and some faced threats of violence, leading to a wave of resignations, retirements or firings among public health leaders during the last year.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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