SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Newly uncovered emails show the St. Joseph Health Department and its governing board started to politicize the COVID-19 pandemic as early as July 2020. The emails were obtained through a public records request submitted by REAL News Michiana several months ago. In one email exchange, the Vice President of the board, Jason Marker, pushes to use the media to name and shame local businesses who violate an illegal public health order issued by the Health Department. He also criticizes Christians, Republicans and the conservative Tea Party movement, in the name of public health.
The email exchange starts with a message from Health Officer Dr. Robert Einterz regarding a County Council vote on allowing the Health Department to issue fines for violating his mask mandate order on July 29th, 2020.
Last evening, the County Council committee voted 8 to 1 in favor of moving the ordinance empowering DoH to issue fines for non-compliance with the face covering order to a public hearing. Unfortunately, we needed a unanimous vote for the Ordinance to go to a public hearing. So, to enact the ordinance, it will have to go for “first reading” at the next full council meeting, then to committee again, then to public hearing, and then for a vote by the Council and then to the Commissioners. The one councilman who voted against the Ordinance was Mark Root. His comments were interesting. He expressed long-standing hostility toward the Department of Health, calling us dishonest and disingenuous. He said he did not think the DoH should have the power to issue fines. The president of the Council, Rafael Morton, pressed Mr. Root to elaborate on his long-standing dissatisfaction with the DoH; but, Mr. Root declined to comment further.
I had hoped that the ordinance would pass out of committee so that the “threat” of fines within the month would help with the DoH’s enforcement of the order. Unfortunately, given the likelihood that enactment of the ordinance is now more than two months away, those of you and your staff responsible for inspecting compliance with the order have no options for enforcement. As Amy Ruppe said to me earlier this morning, the best we can do is wag a finger and say “naughty, naughty” to any
establishment or person that refuses to comply with the order!
So, at this point, until the order makes its way through the various procedural steps, I think that the process of receiving and investigating complaints is a waste of time and demoralizing to the staff of the DoH responsible for the investigations. Therefore, I lean toward putting on hold all efforts at inspection and enforcement until the Council or the State legislature empowers the DoH. I favor pulling down the DoH’s complaint web page and stop investigating complaints. When we receive a complaint that a business or person is not complying with the order, I suggest we thank the person lodging the complaint, reinforce the importance of adherence to the order, explain that the Council and State are considering whether to empower the DoH to enforce the order, and then refer the person lodging the complaint to his/her county council member, commissioner, state legislator, and/or governor. If the Council or State empowers the DoH to enforce the order, we will re-institute our efforts to register and investigate complaints and enforce the order. Meantime, let’s focus our
energies on the Mask-Up Michiana initiative and our usual, pre-COVID responsibilities.
I welcome your suggestions and input.
In the email exchange, which can be seen in its entirety at the end of the story, several people respond with their own opinions on how to move forward. However, the response from Health Board VP, Jason Marker, shows an immediate politicization of the pandemic as he suggests the board and health department act as activists. At the same time, he slams conservatives and specifically goes after Republican County Councilmember Mark Root.
I went to high school with Mr. Root and attend church with him presently. I do not know his “beef” with the BoH/DoH, but I suspect his “Tea Party-esque” libertarian leanings inform some of his opinions. I am personally disappointed in this political sects’ inability to integrate science AND biblical teaching into their secular worldview, but am sadly not surprised that his was the vote that will kill our citizens.
I am in favor of using the power of media to take our next steps. I believe we should proceed into the path that the Council has forced us locally, hope that the ISDH can provide additional guidance and enforcement support from state government, and continue to collect complaints that are sent to us AND encourage our BoH/DoH to be active “reporters” in their day-to-day life as citizens, as well. I would advocate that our Board meetings have a regular agenda item to visibly and audibly report and discuss violations, acknowledge that we have no enforcement authority as yet (but are in pursuit), and implore our media partners to report on our meetings in a robust manner. Certainly we can report out at our next meeting how “the vote” went including a “roll-call” report of our Council members (since that vote is a matter of public record anyway). This may actually be more impactful as we return to school, COVID continues to make gains, and people begin to think more from a community-focused standpoint again. I wouldn’t advocate using the word “boycott”, but community organizers (which is what this council action has forced us to be) have historically found this to be an acceptable and effective tool.
It appears Marker’s advice was taken into consideration by the Health Department, specifically the use of the media. The following month, August 2020, the South Bend Tribune and several TV news stations started to publicly shame local businesses. The SBT published an article with a “Repeat Violations” section.
REAL News Michiana also uncovered text messages between the Health Department and a reporter with WSBT, showing the two colluding to attack a local bar. You can read about that incident here.
This also comes several weeks after RNM uncovered a disturbing social media post from an employee of the health department, who said she wished she could refuse treatment to people who don’t wear masks or get vaccinated. You can read that story here.
RNM reached out to Jason Marker for comment for this story. As of publication, he had not responded.
The full email exchange regarding the mask mandate issue can be read below.