Borkovich, fellow county sheriffs defy Gov. Whitmer, claim they will selectively enforce State’s social distancing executive order

“The governor doesn’t wear a badge. The governor doesn’t carry a gun. It’s just an [executive] order,” says Leelanau sheriff

By Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich and his fellow sheriffs in Benzie, Manistee and Mason Counties today released a press release stating they would defy Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order and selectively enforce social distancing in their communities.

The governor’s clarification last week of her executive order temporarily banning the use of motorized boats during the COVID-19 global pandemic has drawn criticism from conservative circles. Non-motorized boating, such as canoeing, kayaking and sailing is allowed. Perch fishing in motorized boats is a popular sport this time of year in Leelanau County. But the state’s Department of Natural Resources closed three county boat launches on April 3 after large crowds of fishermen gathered at them.

This morning, protestors formed a gridlock of cars around the State Capitol in Lansing to call for Whitmer to relax social distancing and re-open Michigan’s economy. Whitmer’s stay-at-home order currently extends through April 30.

To date, 1,768 Michiganders have died of COVID-19, and 27,001 have been infected. The state registered another 166 deaths yesterday—its second-deadliest day since the pandemic began. Michigan has the third most coronavirus deaths in the nation. The United States has suffered more deaths (more than 28,000) than any other nation.

“While we understand [Governor Whitmer’s] desire to protect the public, we question some restrictions that she has imposed as overstepping her executive authority,” the sheriffs wrote in today’s press release. “She has created a vague framework of emergency laws that only confuse Michigan citizens. As a result, we will not have strict enforcement of these orders. We will deal with every case as an individual situation and apply common sense in assessing the apparent violation.”

Borkovich told the Glen Arbor Sun that the Benzie, Manistee and Mason county sheriffs spoke to each other yesterday, but he was unable to join their meeting. He received a draft of their press release this morning and added his name.

Leelanau County administrator Chet Janik said he had no advance notice of Borkovich’s move to defy the governor’s order. “He is an elected official, so he doesn’t report to the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners,” Janik told the Sun.

The sheriffs’ declaration drew immediate criticism from some citizens.

“You and your three comrades went out on a vigilante course, demanding respect from people just because of the badges you wear, and you defy the order of governor of the state,” said northern Michigander Kathy Kelly, who spoke on the phone today with both Sheriff Borkovich and Benzie Sheriff Ted Schendel, who she claimed hung up on her repeatedly.

“What is [Governor Whitmer] supposed to do, enforce different rules for Northern Michigan than Southern Michigan? That would bring more people up to Northern Michigan, and our hospitals can’t handle more people,” Kelly added. “You have no right to demand respect from anyone ever again. You cannot command what you don’t give.”

This newspaper has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Leelanau County to obtain any official correspondence between Borkovich and his fellow county sheriffs that relate to the governor’s executive order.

“Motor boats don’t spread COVID-19”

“Someone came up with the idea that fishing in a 16-foot boat with your son would be legal. But if the boat had a motor, it would be illegal,” said Borkovich. “We are trying to reassure the public that we won’t arrest people for fishing in boats with motors on them.

“We all support the governor’s message of staying safe,” Borkovich added. “We recommend that people follow orders as close as possible to social distance themselves, to wear masks, to wear gloves, and to wash their hands. We’re worried about the risks posed by people coming from other parts of the state and other states that hard hit by the virus. But we have to assure people that we won’t be watching boats from the public launches.”

Borkovich offered his own theory on how to stop the coronavirus pandemic.

“Motor boats don’t spread COVID-19,” Borkovich said. “You being out in the outdoors will get rid of this virus quicker than anything. These viruses usually pop up in November.”

While research results are inconsistent, a new report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) suggests that warm weather won’t stop the virus from spreading. 

“The governor doesn’t wear a badge”

Asked about the implications of selective enforcing of a state’s executive order by local sheriffs, Borkovich responded, “We’re not by blanket order gonna be told what to do. We’re not robots. There has to be discretion in law enforcement.”

Borkovich compared selective enforcement of social distancing during the pandemic to enforcement of traffic laws, saying that not everyone who turns without using a turn signal gets pulled over.

Leelanau’s sheriff also sought to distinguish between the governor’s role and that of deputies in uniform.

“The governor doesn’t wear a badge. The governor doesn’t carry a gun. It’s just an [executive] order.”

“Can you imagine if we pulled over every person in Leelanau County and asked for their papers? Like in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. We just want to make sure people know we won’t do that.”

Deputies offer guidance, not arrests

Borkovich said the Leelanau County Dispatch has been flooded with phone calls in recent weeks from citizens calling to report seeing contractors on job sites, crowds of people, or cars with out-of-state license plates at second homes or rental homes.

“If 10 contractors are not working, and they see one that is, they call and complain.”

Leelanau deputies have not issued tickets or made arrests related to social distancing, but they have approached citizens to offer guidance or warnings about what the state’s executive order does, and doesn’t allow. According to Borkovich, Leelanau prosecutor Joe Hubbell has sent at least one cease and desist letter to a business that didn’t shut down.

In his interview with the Sun, Borkovich voiced a clear preference for laws to be relaxed and the economy to reopen soon.

“People are nervous and upset about their jobs. Everybody just wants to get back to work. We hope this ends quickly.”

The press release jointly issued by the four sheriffs today expressed a preference for those that work outdoors:

“Our focus needs to be on reopening our counties and getting people back to work. We also need to be aware that this virus is deadly and that we need to continue to practice social distancing, washing of hands, wearing of masks as well as other medically recommended measures. Allowing those without paychecks back to work is imperative to the economic success and wellbeing of our community. We can do this in stages, especially those that work outside.”