Monroe County health board to decide on Sept. 22 about possible extension of mask mandate into October

Monroe County’s indoor mask mandate, which is intended to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic virus, will almost certainly stay in place through its current expiration date of Sept. 30.

Image links to Indiana’s dashboard for COVID-19

The mask mandate has been in place since Aug. 5.

Whether it will be extended into October will be decided at the next meeting of the county’s board of health, which is now set for 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 22.

That would allow time for the county’s board of commissioners to ratify the local regulation at its regular Wednesday morning on Sept. 29, if a decision is made to extend the mandate.

Based on discussion at Wednesday’s board of health meeting, there’s a possibility that the mask mandate will not be extended.

Monroe County health administrator Penny Caudill, county health officer Thomas Sharp, and county attorney Margie Rice asked board of health members to weigh the benefits of the mask mandate compared to the energy it takes to enforce it.

The energy that goes into enforcing the mask mandate might be used better to promote vaccination, they said.

On Wednesday at least some board of health members did not sound inclined to alter the mandate, certainly not that day. They pointed to the mask mandate as possibly one of the reasons that the community spread of the pandemic in Monroe County, as measured in the state’s color-coded system for counties, is one of the lowest in the state.

Still it was apparent they were receptive at least to the possibility of letting the mask mandate expire, depending on what the numbers look like two weeks from now, even if Monroe County is not “blue.”

On Wednesday, Monroe County scored yellow in the four-color system of: blue, yellow, orange, and red.

Caudill cited Monroe County’s relatively low community spread as possibly due to the mask mandate, before suggesting that putting her department’s energy into promoting vaccination, instead of enforcing the mask mandate, could be a better use of resources.

Caudill said, “We know that masks work, they are beneficial. I think many people would say probably one of the reasons that we are still in yellow has something to do with the mask mandate.”

Caudill added, “As far as I know, we are the only county in Indiana that currently has a mask mandate.”

Caudill continued, “But what I’m hearing from people makes me ask the question: Does the mandate move people who are unwilling to wear masks, and get them to wear them? What’s that balance between cost and benefit?”

Caudill described a situation where a patron was asked to leave a business, because he was not wearing a mask, then returned and drew a knife on the employee who had asked him to leave. The employee was not injured and the knife-wielding patron was arrested, Caudill said.

Business owners don’t want to put employees in harm’s way, Caudill told the board.

A private company, Security Pro 24/7, is under contract to help with the county’s enforcement efforts.

Health officer Thomas Sharp echoed Caudill’s sentiments. Sharp put it like this: “There’s a point of diminishing returns of the mandate versus a strong recommendation.” Sharp added, “I would recommend, by the way, just waiting until it expires at the end of September.”

Later in the meeting, Rice told the health board members they should ask themselves: “Where do you want your health department staff resources spent?”

Rice added, “So we know that vaccinations save lives. We know we have a lower rate of vaccination than we would like. We know that we have local ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars.” Rice noted the county commissioners and county councillors are thinking about how to spend the county’s roughly $29 million share of ARPA money.

The county’s vaccination rate for eligible residents is still a smidgen under 60 percent, which is a level she was hoping the county would have already hit at least two months ago, Caudill said.

Board of health member Mark Norrell noted that Monroe County is like a yellow “island” on the state map. “You would have to ask: What is driving our county’s good performance relative to other counties?” Norrell continued, “There are multiple factors, including the mask mandate, that could be at the core of why we are [yellow].”

Norrell pointed to the relatively higher vaccination rate for Monroe County. Separating out the positive effect of the mask mandate compared to the vaccination rate could be hard, Norrell said. “The data should kind of drive that decision on a mask mandate,” Norrell concluded.

Board member Stephen Pritchard blamed most of the problems with people who aren’t behaving properly by wearing masks and getting vaccinated. “Group dynamics are usually governed by the worst behaved people in the group,” Pritchard said.

About the idea of letting the mask mandate expire, Pritchard said, “I’m afraid that we’re going to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because a few people have behaved badly.”

Board member Carol Litten Touloukian noted that even if the county government does not have a mandate, businesses and other facilities can mandate masks. As an example, Touloukian gave the hospital. “They need to be enforcing it, because it’s a healthcare facility.” She continued, “It’s very clear that certain places should absolutely mandate it.”

Board member Robert Wren wondered if the yellow rating was due in large part to the amount of testing that is being done by Indiana University, which brings the positivity rate down.

In other mask mandate news, from earlier in the day on Wednesday, the county board of commissioners decided to set a hearing date for Seven Oaks Classical School for its appeal of a citation for a violation of the county’s mask order. The school was cited on Aug. 19, and the appeal was filed on Aug. 25.

The date of the hearing for Seven Oaks is Thursday, Sept. 16 at 2 p.m.

How Monroe County stayed yellow

After peaking at a rolling average of 46 on Aug. 29, the daily average for Monroe County is now down about 10 points, at around 36 on Tuesday. In the color-coding system used by the state, which is updated every Wednesday, the drop in cases was enough to keep Monroe County in yellow, instead of orange.

The number of cases per 100,000 residents per week for the previous week came in at 182 for Monroe County, which is under the 200 that would have bumped the county’s score to a 3 on the 0–3 point scale for case numbers. That means Monroe County’s case number score was 2 for Wednesday’s color coding.

The case-number score of 2, gets averaged with the positivity rate score of 1. That’s based on a countywide positivity rate of 5.06 percent, which was just above the 5-percent threshold for a zero score. Above 5 percent would be a 1. Less than 5 percent would be a zero. A 2 averaged with a 1 kept Monroe County at a 1.5 overall, which translates to yellow in the color scheme.

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