Photo: Darron Cummings, AP
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana health leaders say the wearing of face masks will be as important as ever to stem the coronavirus spread, even as most of the statewide restrictions imposed by the governor are lifted as of Saturday.
The new executive order from Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb continues the mask mandate that has angered some conservatives around the state who maintain they won’t support his reelection over it.
Holcomb’s order removes the 75% capacity limit for restaurants and the 50% limit that bars, movie theaters and other entertainment venues faced. But they must continue maintaining at least 6 feet between unrelated patrons, which could diminish capacity in many of those businesses.
Limits on crowd sizes for social gatherings and meetings are being removed, but those who organize events with more than 500 people must submit a written safety plan to health officials.
The executive order dubs the regulations as the “new normal during a global pandemic.”
“We want to continue doing those things and protect against the spread of this virus,” Holcomb said in announcing the changes Wednesday.
Health officials on Friday added 18 more COVID-19 deaths to the state’s toll. The newly recorded deaths raise the state’s death toll during the pandemic to 3,566, including confirmed and presumed coronavirus cases, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. That is an increase of 71 deaths in the past week.
Leaders of the Indiana State Medical Association and Indiana Hospital Association said they agreed with the governor’s move to further ease the statewide restrictions for the first time since early July. They cited factors such as a decline in the positivity rate for COVID-19 deaths and the improved capacity of hospitals to care for seriously ill patients.
Brian Tabor, president of the Indiana Hospital Association, said the public must continue wearing masks when out in public, follow distancing recommendations and receive the flu vaccine soon so hospitals don’t become overwhelmed.
More hospitalized patients are younger and don’t need the intensive care unit treatment as much or as lengthy hospital stays as those earlier in the pandemic, Tabor said.
“Even when hospitalizations may tick up a little bit, it doesn’t represent the same kind of extreme pressure on the health care system that we had in April,” Tabor said. “If we adhere to all the things that are required, I think we can move forward.”
Indianapolis officials announced Friday they would start allowing half indoor capacity for restaurants, bars, gyms and entertainment venues as Holcomb’s order continues to allow cities and counties to impose tougher regulations.
“We are trying to do a balance because we know how devastating from an economic standpoint it is for our business, a lot of workers,” Marion County health department director Dr. Virginia Caine said.
Dr. Mark Fox, deputy health officer in northern Indiana’s St. Joseph County, said he was surprised by Holcomb’s decision and he believed the state should have first seen a more consistent drop in new cases.
“I think psychologically it’s going to send the message that ‘Well, our governor wouldn’t encourage us to do something that’s unsafe,’ so things must be great,” Fox said.
Holcomb’s easing of regulations hasn’t satisfied some conservatives who believe his executive orders in response to the pandemic have gone too far. That has complicated his reelection campaign against Democratic challenger Woody Myers, with some saying they would support Libertarian candidate Donald Rainwater.
Myers, a physician and former state health commissioner, has called for tougher enforcement of the mask mandate and other restrictions, while Rainwater flatly opposes the mask requirement even though violators face no state penalties.
The mask order is a dealbreaker for Jerry Yoder, 60, of Columbus, who said he wouldn’t vote for Holcomb again after supporting him four years ago. He called the mandate “obnoxious and unconstitutional” and said the Legislature should have been the source of such a rule rather than an executive order from the governor.
“I’m cautious about my health. But I should have the say – respond to my health concerns the way I want to,” Yoder said.
Holcomb on Thursday signed his seventh extension of the public health emergency that he first issued March 6. The 30-day extension runs from Oct. 2 until Nov. 1.
When asked whether politics played a role in Holcomb’s decision, governor’s office spokeswoman Rachel Hoffmeyer replied: “The governor makes decisions based on data and the guidance of medical experts.”
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.