Health officer comments on proposed bill

A measure that would limit the power of county and city health departments and health officers when it comes to enforcing health mandates continues to work its way through the legislative process.

If enacted by legislators and signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb, Senate Bill 48 would restrict officials with local health departments from enacting “an enforcement action, order, mandate or prohibition” related to a communicable disease for more than two weeks.

Any order longer than 14 days, would require approval from county commissioners or city executives.

The bill also limits how much a person can be fined for being in violation of a public health order and allows for anyone who sees consequences for violating a public health order to take a local health officer or health department to court.

Dr. Christopher Bunce, public health officer for the Jackson County Health Department, said he has concerns about the bill, its intentions and how its restrictions would affect public health.

“My concerns are that this is some kind of attempt to limit what (public health officials) can do during public health emergencies, particularly epidemics,” Bunce said.

After reading the bill, Bunce said he questioned what happened that caused such concern for the bill to be created.

“I’d love to talk to one of the sponsors to say, ‘What is it that prompted you to do this? What were the things that you saw that made a response? What were the abuses?’” Bunce said.

Discussing the 14-day time limit on public health orders that the legislation would impose, Bunce said that’s a short period for him to repeatedly seek executive approval.

He said even though the bill would require him to seek executive approval to issue a health order, he doesn’t do anything without informing county commissioners anyway.

Bunce said he knows some Hoosiers haven’t been receptive to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s masking mandates and attendance restrictions, but they were needed to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. He also said he felt all health departments in Indiana were in support of the governor’s masking mandate.

“There probably wasn’t a health department in the state that wasn’t begging the governor for a masking mandate before it happened,” he said. “We all knew as doctors, particularly myself as an infectious disease specialist, I knew that masking was going to be the key.”

Bunce said Holcomb was “firm and fair” with the mandate and the governor also recognizes how executive action allows health officials to serve the public.

“I think there are a lot of people against the governor’s mandates who didn’t want the governor to issue statewide mandates, and I don’t know how that would affect the governor,” he said. “Would it affect my ability to even obey the governor? It sounds like maybe it would, so that would be my concern. The executive power of a governor in a health crisis, to me, is important.”

Concerning local government, Bunce said he is thankful for the support he has received.

“I have had remarkable support from everyone. From the commissioners to the mayor to the county council, I have not felt in any way that what I did was not appreciated,” he said.

Matt Reedy, who is president of the county commissioners, said he had not heard of SB 48 and didn’t have a comment on it until he was able to read it.

When it came to the part of the bill with limits on the fines people receive for violating health mandates, Bunce said he didn’t have an issue with it and thought it was good to know what the fines were.

No fines have been issued by Bunce while serving as a public health officer during the pandemic.

“The worst thing we did was close a restaurant or two because they either didn’t have enough employees or they were infected or they weren’t wearing masks,” he said.

The health department has jurisdiction over restaurants and other businesses they issue permits for, such as tattoo parlors.

Bunce said the reason the health department is allowed to close places they have jurisdiction over is because they endanger public health when violating protocol.

“That’s why when we find rat droppings in a restaurant, we can close it,” he said. “(If) we find that people are endangering public health because all of their employees are not wearing masks, we can close it.”

On the section of the bill where people are allowed to take their local health department to court when violating a health order, Bunce said that would affect the ability of health officials to do their job.

“Now, if every time I close it I have to appear in court, I think that that would really be a burden on the health department,” Bunce said.

He also said he’s worried about who would be making public health decisions if people could take local health officials to court over mandate violations.

“I would hate to think that a judge would be the one making our health decisions for the county,” Bunce said.

“I do understand checks and balances, so I can understand if a county health officer or a health department was going rogue, so to speak, and trampling on the rights of people and going where they shouldn’t go, and I understand that,” he said. “If this is just basically to help define that check on the health departments, I would say fine, but I’m not certain that’s what it is.”