Monroe County health board: Mask mandate to continue into November, tied to pandemic case numbers

Monroe County’s indoor mask mandate, for the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike, will continue into November and possibly even beyond—until the county’s positive COVID-19 case numbers drop to fewer than 50 cases per week per 100,000 residents.

That was the unanimous vote of Monroe County’s board of health at its Thursday meeting.

The current regulation goes through the end of October. In the current regulation, a drop in positive case numbers below 50 cases per week per 100,000 residents is also a condition tied to an end to the mask mandate.

Responding to an emailed question from The B Square, county health administrator Penny Caudill said the exact wording of the new regulation was not yet determined.

The state dashboard’s color-coded map gets updated every Wednesday. Because of that, the board wants the mask mandate to end at midnight on whichever Wednesday the state’s dashboard shows a weekly case total for Monroe County of less than 50 per 100,000 residents.

In daily terms, the key level that would trigger an end to the mask mandate translates to about 10.6 positive cases per day. Monroe County has seen case numbers in that range most recently between mid-May and mid-July. Before that, to see numbers that low, you have to go back to mid-August of 2020.

The positive case numbers are on the decline in Monroe County, but it’s a gradual decrease. In recent days the rolling average has started to nudge down towards 21.2 cases per day, which translates into 100 cases per 100,000 residents. That’s the upper bound for the state’s second best of four tiers to measure community spread.

Board of health member Robert Wrenn based his support of a continued mask mandate in part on Indiana University’s report from IU vice president for strategic partnerships, Kirk White. “White gave a comment that 93 percent of the IU students were vaccinated,” Wrenn noted. Given that Monroe County’s overall figure stands at around 60.7 percent vaccinated, Wrenn reasoned that the vaccination rate for the non-university population must be lower, if IU tips the scale upward.

Wrenn asked, “Shouldn’t we continue being careful about opening the door, if our community is not vaccinated?”

Board member George Hegeman agreed with Wrenn. “Things look relatively good at the moment, but we have a new variant on the horizon,” Hegeman said.

Board member Carol Touloukian credited the mask mandate for Monroe County’s lower rate of positive cases than many other places in the state. “I think the reason that we’re doing so much better than the rest of the state is because we have a mask mandate. And I don’t see any reason at this point to back off from that,” Touloukian said.

While he supported the continuation of the mask mandate, board member Mark Norrell expressed no enthusiasm for mask wearing: “I’ve got to wear a mask when I’m teaching. And all the students wear masks—and we do what we gotta do. And I just hate it.”

Norrell elaborated: “My students cannot see my facial expressions. They don’t know when I’m kidding around and I’m smiling.” Norrell added, “And I can’t recognize faces as well as I did—I’m not learning the names because of this.” He wrapped up by saying, “Everybody just hates it. And I can’t wait for this to go away.”

The county’s board of commissioners will need to approve the board of health’s change to the regulations. The commissioners hold their next weekly meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 27 at 10 a.m.