INDIANAPOLIS - Indiana’s governor announced Tuesday he would lift the statewide mask mandate and remaining COVID-19 business restrictions in two weeks.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said in a speech from his Statehouse office that the state’s steep declines in coronavirus hospitalization and deaths 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 people in the state over the past year.
The date for ending the mask mandate was picked to coincide with the ending of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament now being held in Indianapolis and to allow more time for people with at-risk health conditions to get vaccine shots, Holcomb said.
Local officials would still have the authority to impose tougher restrictions in response to COVID-19 cases in their communities and face mask use would still be required in K-12 schools for rest of this school year, Holcomb said.
He urged residents to continue wearing masks in public and that bars and restaurants continue to space out their tables.
While Holcomb has faced public pressure and from conservative state lawmakers to ease restrictions, especially after governors in Texas and other states have done so recently, he didn’t make any bold victory announcements and asked residents to respect rules adopted by businesses and others.
"Whether that is a bank branch lobby, on the factory floor or a county courthouse or city hall, they retain the authority to make decisions about COVID restrictions for their operations and should be afforded the respect, compliance and understanding of all who visit them," Holcomb said. "When I visit my favorite restaurants or conduct a public event, I will continue to appropriately wear a mask, it’s the right thing to do."
But some health experts worry it is premature to lift the statewide restrictions, pointing to the steep increase in hospitalizations and deaths the state saw beginning in September after the governor lifted most business restrictions before reinstating crowd limits after winning reelection in November.
"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 the state would open up vaccine eligibility for all residents 16 and older starting March 31 and that additional mass vaccination clinics were being planned for April.
The governor’s public health emergency for the state will remain in place through April, which Holcomb said would allow state officials to take quick action if needed and gives the state access to hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.
Holcomb’s speech came on the one-year anniversary of when he announced a statewide stay-at-home order that lasted for six weeks. He spent much of the 23-minute speech outlining the state’s action to last spring’s initial surge of COVID-19 infections and the response to the fall surge that saw Indiana’s coronavirus death rate peak at 103 people a day in mid December — contributing to a 16% increase in statewide deaths during 2020 from the year before.
"Our businesses remained open when other states shut down," Holcomb said. "We showed we could balance and we showed we would persevere. And today we’re in a different and better place."
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 have raised concerns about more contagious variants, such as one suspected of possibly causing a recent increase in Michigan infections. The state health department reports only 18% of Indiana residents 16 and older were fully vaccinated through Monday.
Dr. Richard Feldman, who was state health commissioner under Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon, said he was concerned Holcomb was reacting to pressure to more fully reopen the state’s economy.
"From a public health and physician standpoint, I really believe that we are not ready to open up fully," Feldman said. "We’re not ready to give up on or discontinue the mitigation strategies of distancing, hand washing — and most of all, masks. I don’t think we’re ready for that. There’s not enough of our population that has been immunized."
The Republican-dominated Legislature is debating proposals to c urtail the governor’s authority to impose restrictions such as mask rules and business closures. Many conservative legislators want to cancel Holcomb’s public health emergency order, with a resolution to do so being sponsored by 28 Republicans in the 100-member House.
Holcomb’s decisions on extending restrictions could influence steps lawmakers take before adjourning this year’s regular session in about a month.
"We are excited about the ending of the statewide mask mandate and capacity limits in early April," Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said. "It’s clear that Indiana is following the data, and listening to the thousands of Hoosiers and businesses who are ready to get back to work or fully reopen."