Trend: Indiana lifts mask mandate, critics warn "We're not ready"

A trend toward easing up on stringent mitigation measures in place against the coronavirus continues. Indiana is the latest state to announce an end in sight for its mask mandate and a return to full capacity for businesses. Governor Eric Holcomb made the announcement Tuesday which included a note of caution – the new rules don’t go into effect for two weeks.

Hang on, Hoosiers is the message, April 6 is just around the corner. The Republican governor spoke from his office at the Statehouse and referenced the combination of a steep decline in coronavirus hospitalizations and death rates as well as the number of fully vaccinated people as the basis of his reasoning. The numbers are looking good in Indiana. After a year of the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic in the state, which includes the death of 13,000 people, the governor is hopeful that Indiana is now seeing the “tail end of this pandemic”.

Holcomb isn’t making any claims of victory or encouraging others to just throw caution to the wind when April 6 arrives. He said he’ll continue to wear a mask in public places for the time being. He is following the lead of states like Texas where the governor eases mitigation mandates while giving the authority to local businesses and public officials to keep mandates in place. It is up to individual businesses and local governments to manage their spaces when it comes to mitigation measures.

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.”

When Governor Abbott put a halt to the statewide mask mandate in Texas, critics quickly attacked his decision, some calling it “Neanderthal” thinking. Yet, he was ‘following the science’ as liberals lecture conservatives about all the time. When the number of hospitalizations and deaths drop and sustain the drop, adjustments can be made. Abbott also encouraged people to continue to mask-up for the near future as we move through Spring Break and the Easter holiday.

One exception to the lifting of the face mask mandate is for schools. Grades K-12 will continue to require face masks for the rest of the school year.

The date of April 6 was chosen because it coincides with the end of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament currently being held in Indianapolis. This date allows more time for people to get vaccinations, too. Critics say it is too soon and worry that what happened in past months will happen again. When Gov. Holcomb lifted some restrictions last fall, the numbers went back up and then spiked.

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.”

The medical community is more cautious as a general rule than the public so criticism from that community is not unusual. April will not look like last September, though. Now a large number of the population is being vaccinated against the coronavirus and there are those who have the antibodies from past exposure. Herd immunity is on the horizon if predictions hold. There is reason for optimism that the end of this pandemic is coming.

The public health emergency declared by Holcomb will remain in place through April which allows state officials the ability to take quick action if needed while giving the state access to federal funding. Holcomb’s speech was delivered on the one-year anniversary of the state’s stay-at-home order that lasted for six weeks. He noted that businesses stayed open when other states shut down and said the state was able to balance its response to allow Hoosiers to persevere.

Indiana’s COVID hospitalizations and death rates have fallen by more than 80% since December peaks.

Just as we see more states opening up vaccinations to all of their residents in order to speed the delivery of shots in arms, this trend in governors making decisions to open back up to more normal levels and reduce mandate restrictions will continue. The facts on the ground in many states this spring look very different than they did last fall. In Texas, some in the medical community criticize Governor Abbott’s decision to end the mask mandate. It is happening in Indiana, too.

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 medical community has become as political as the general public, it appears. The governors making decisions to cautiously reopen their states have all encouraged continuing personal responsibility and common-sense measures. If people don’t act responsibly in public, governors can make necessary adjustments. Otherwise, we’ll never get to a place where states can reopen and post-pandemic life can begin.