Monroe County mask mandate likely to end whenever governor’s emergency order expires

Indiana governor Eric Holcomb’s current order declaring a health emergency for Indiana due to the COVID-19 pandemic will expire on March 4, if he doesn’t extend it for a 24th time.

If Holcomb doesn’t extend the order, Monroe County’s board of health members are now inclined to let the mask mandate expire with the governor’s order. That’s based on their discussion at the board of health’s Thursday meeting.

No vote was taken on a formal motion.

County attorney Jeff Cockerill advised that the current mask mandate “needs to have an underlying emergency declaration” in order to be in effect. Board members now seem inclined to let the mask mandate expire with the governor’s order, but not until then.

Even if Holcomb extends the statewide emergency order, the sentiment on the county board of health during Thursday’s meeting seemed in favor of re-thinking the local mask mandate.

Influencing their thinking is the current sharply downward trend in positive cases, after the early-year Omicron-variant-driven spike. The rolling daily average of positive cases for Monroe County stands at about 70 after peaking at around 296 cases a day in the third week of January.

Board of health members are now thinking in terms of swapping in their mask mandate, with its penalty for non-compliance, for recommendations. Any new regulation would need to be approved by the county board of commissioners.

The health board set its next meeting for March 3 at 4:30 p.m., the day before the governor’s order is currently set to expire.

Public comment during the board of health’s Thursday meeting was solidly in favor of ending the requirement that masks be worn indoors.

At Thursday’s meeting, reprising some of her comments made to the county commissioners at their Wednesday morning meeting, was Angie Northcutt. She told the board of health, “The personal health decisions of my family should be my choice. Our children are being harmed.”

Northcutt continued, “My first grader has never seen his teacher smile at him in his classroom, because of your decisions. You need to remove this mask mandate now, and put the decisions in the hands of the parents.”

County councilor Peter Iversen spoke during the public comment period without taking an explicit position on the mask mandate. He told board of health members that the community trusts them. “As you take on the burden of continuing to make decisions to keep us safe, know that you have the trust of the community—because you use your medical and scientific training to look at publicly available data. Those data are what you base your decisions on, not on anecdotal stories. And for that, I thank you for your service.”

It was board of health member Mark Norrell who floated the idea of ending the mask mandate—without altering the board’s position that masks work. He and other board members agreed that the board of health should continue to advocate for wearing of masks, even if that advocacy did not take the form of a mandate that could be enforced with citations and fines.

Norrell said, “We can pretty confidently say that the science is settled about masking being effective.” He added, “But you know, at the same time, we’ve got to recognize that there are negative effects that affect everybody.”

For Norrell, an outstanding issue, despite the dropping positive case numbers, is the number of people who are hospitalized with COVID-19. For Monroe County’s region, Norrell said, the hospital census hasn’t gone down yet. According to the state’s pandemic dashboard, the hospital census for COVID-19 patients in Monroe County’s region has remained at 125 or more since the first week of December.

Norrell said, “Eventually you gotta decide when you can lift a mask mandate—there has to be a time.” He added, “I see that time right around the corner.”

Board of health member George Hegeman expressed some concern about the possibility of new variants “lurking in the weeds.” He cautioned that if the mask mandate was ended, the board needed to be ready to re-impose one if needed.

Board of health member Ashley Cranor said, “I don’t have a desire this evening to end the mask mandate. Tonight, I am going to be leaning towards just letting it phase out with the governor’s decision.”

Board of health member Stephen Pritchard was not able to attend Thursday’s meeting, but had sent board chair Carol Litten Touloukian an email indicating he supports letting the mask mandate end when the governor’s order ends.

Holcomb has said there is certain legislation in place before he’ll end his emergency order. That legislation would ensure enhanced federal matching funds for Medicaid expenditures can continue, and some kind of standing doctor’s order to allow vaccination of children between 5 and 11 years old.