INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana is moving backward on its reopening plan, as Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Wednesday that the state needs to clamp down on sharply rising COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the state.
“Starting this weekend, there will be no more Stage 5,” Holcomb said. “The Back on Track plan with stages was, for sure, hopeful for us to help regain our footing and our economy, but now, we must focus on how we’ll get to the light at the end of this tunnel.”
The guidelines took effect Sunday and will extend for one month. In making the announcement, Holcomb said he will introduce new requirements for counties that are experiencing high transmission of the virus.
The change comes after Holcomb vehemently denied social media rumors that he was ordering a new shutdown after the election. While the state is not demanding businesses, schools or events shut down, it is reintroducing some controls on gathering sizes and enforcement of existing mitigation efforts.
Chief among those new restrictions, the governor indicated social gatherings will be limited to 50 people in counties with orange ratings from the state’s county metric map, with a 25-person limit for counties in red status.
Last week, almost every county in the state was in orange or red, with only five counties receiving a yellow rating for “moderate” spread. No Indiana counties were in blue, representing “low” transmission.
LaGrange County was rated red, while DeKalb, Noble and Steuben counties were in orange.
A statewide mask mandate will remain in place, and businesses will be required to post notices that face coverings must be worn and will be asked to enforce that restriction, Holcomb said.
“There’s only so many tools that we have to use to bend that trajectory down, to slow the spread,” Holcomb said. “There are only so many tools to use and we know, as I just mentioned, that some of the most inexpensive tools we have may be the most inconvenient, but they work.”
Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box detailed some of the coming changes, which will be applied to counties with orange and red ratings from the state.
For counties in the orange, gatherings will be limited to 50 people. Any indoor events that may end up being larger will need to submit a plan and receive approval from the local health department in order to proceed.
At schools, K-12 extracurricular activities should be limited to 25 percent capacity in gyms or other rooms, and non-family groups should be socially distanced.
For counties in red, gathering sizes are being held to 25 people. The state advises that events that would exceed that number be canceled. Events that are not being canceled will need approval from the county health department.
As for school events, the state advises that schools limit access to activities to only participants, support staff and parents, with no other spectators. Those rules also apply to college and professional sports and not just K-12 events.
Churches will be exempted from the gathering limitations as they have been in past executive orders, Holcomb said, although he advised church leaders and congregations to take the situation seriously.
“They are still exempted, however, don’t get me started,” Holcomb said. “They are exempted as they have been in the previous executive orders, but we do want to stress that this virus connects with people wherever you are when you let your guard down.”
Box indicated that every week, the state sees a rise in cases after every Sunday, as close-quarters services and activities such as loud singing can spread the virus more widely. After-service gatherings also have been an issue, as people congregate after church services and lower their guard, she said.
To assist counties in mitigation and enforcement of restrictions, the state is making $20 million in funding available to counties to obtain to help with tasks such as staffing for plan reviews, supply purchases or enforcement efforts.
The guidelines discussed Wednesday didn’t include any mention of orders to close anything, whether it be businesses, schools or other events, and Holcomb specifically made a point to stress that.
“This is what we’re trying to avoid,” Holcomb said forcefully. “We want our businesses that have proven — I’ve often said that sometimes the safest place to be is in the classroom or at work, because there is enforcement there of compliance, because there is incentive to learn or produce, contribute, create, innovate. That’s the position we want to be in, and we need more compliance and enforcement.”
Box supported that sentiment, stating that after cases have doubled every week for several weeks straight, either Hoosiers need to make the changes now, or they’ll find things start shutting down regardless.
“This is why we need to turn the tide now. This is why we have to make changes now,” Box said, stating that she’s already hearing of schools that have to close because they simply don’t have enough available staff to operate. “One way or another, things will shut down and decrease if we don’t take proactive action now.”
While county ratings on the state’s weekly map can change from week to week, which in turn could impact gathering sizes and other restrictions, Box said if all counties recommit to enforcing the mitigation strategies that she believes the situation will improve in time and start to stabilize.
“I think that every county should make sure that the basic of what we’re asking for in mitigation procedures are taking place,” she said. “I think with that ongoing, I think we can actually get into a color and stay in that color, but we have to effect that change now.”