By Tom Davies
The Associated Press
Indiana’s governor plans to lift the statewide mask mandate and remaining COVID-19 business restrictions in two weeks.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said in a Tuesday evening speech that the state’s steep declines in coronavirus hospitalization and death rates along with the growing number of people fully vaccinated justify the steps starting April 6.
Holcomb said he hoped the state was seeing the “tail end of this pandemic” that has killed nearly 13,000 over the past year.
Holcomb said local officials would still have the authority to impose tougher restrictions in response to COVID-19 cases in their communities and that face mask use would still be required in K-12 schools for the rest of this school year. He urged residents to continue wearing masks in public and that bars and restaurants continue to space out their tables.
Holcomb has faced public pressure from conservative state lawmakers to ease restrictions, especially after governors in Texas and other states have done so recently.
But some health experts worry it is premature to lift the statewide restrictions.
“We put a lot of restrictions in place last year, there was some initial hesitation by some parts of the population to comply with some of those orders,” said Brian Dixon, an epidemiologist at Indiana University’s Fairbanks School of Public Health. “And then what we saw in the fall is that rates went up, they skyrocketed because people were not following precautions.”
Holcomb said last week he would talk about coronavirus vaccine distribution and the further lifting of restrictions around the state.
The stay-at-home order was lifted after six weeks, but complaints from the public and some conservative state legislators have continued about the mask mandate that Holcomb first issued in July. Holcomb’s order that continued the mandate and limited gatherings in counties based on coronavirus risk is set to expire April 1.
The governor has not fully lifted Indiana’s restrictions, as governors in Texas and other states have recently done, but last week, he hinted that his speech could outline a timeline for such action.
“We have always been methodical and optimistically cautious but cautious about over promising,” Holcomb said.
Indiana’s coronavirus hospitalizations and death rates have fallen by more than 80% since their December peaks.
Nevertheless, Indiana still averages about 10 coronavirus-related deaths per day, and health officials continue to urge mask wearing and social distancing due to concerns about more contagious variants. The state health department reports only 18% of Indiana residents 16 and older are fully vaccinated.
Indiana has recorded nearly 13,000 coronavirus deaths, which were the main cause of a 16% increase in statewide deaths in 2020 from the year before.
State officials had based COVID-19 shot eligibility on age until two weeks ago when they widened availability to teachers and other school employees on the direction of President Joe Biden’s administration.
“We’ve had a very different method of eligibility than other states,” said Micah Pollak, an Indiana University Northwest economist who analyzed state vaccine data. “We’ve chosen to be very careful about who we allocate vaccine to, so make sure we get those high-risk people in first before rolling out the next phase of eligibility, not just throwing open the door and letting everybody crowd in.”
Pollak said 80% of residents could be fully vaccinated by the end of August.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box has said state officials are working to meet Biden’s directive to make all adults eligible for a vaccine by May 1 and blamed expansion delays on too few doses coming from the federal government.
The Republican-dominated Legislature is debating proposals to curtail a governor’s authority under the state’s emergency powers law to impose restrictions such as mask rules and business closures. Many conservative legislators want to cancel the public health emergency order issued a year ago by Holcomb, with a resolution to do so being sponsored by 28 Republicans in the 100-member House.
Legislative leaders haven’t yet taken up that resolution or any legislation that would roll back any restrictions imposed under Holcomb’s executive orders.
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said Holcomb’s decisions on extending restrictions could influence steps lawmakers take before adjourning this year’s regular session in about a month.
“I think it is time that we can start moving forward on easing some of the restrictions that are in place, want to make sure we do it the right way and in the most appropriate way,” Huston said.
Associated Press writer Casey Smith contributed to this report.