Local health officials can still enforce stricter guidelines on masks in Indiana

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. --- Governor Eric Holcomb announced Tuesday the statewide mask mandate will be replaced by a mask advisory on April 6.

Just one year ago Tuesday, Indiana issued its first stay-at-home order. Hoosiers are now working with those same set of guidelines, events and advisories, except backwards this time. 

Masks will no longer be required in the Hoosier state, but recommended. 

Governor Holcomb announced that health officials at the local level have the authority to enforce stringent guidelines. 

In St. Joseph County, the public health order is still in effect until March 31. It requires that any business open to customers has to make alcohol-based hand sanitizer of at least 60% available. Face coverings over the nose and mouth are also required in enclosed public spaces or businesses when a person cannot maintain six feet of distance. 

The county mask ordinance is also still in effect, meaning businesses that do not comply or refuse to wear face coverings can be fined between $50-$250 by the health department. Health officials only issue those fines if they receive complaints or if there is no proper signage signaling to mask up. The council is set to meet again in April to re-evaluate the ordinance, according to St. Joseph County Deputy Health Officer, Dr. Mark Fox. 

Dr. Fox said enforcement has always been problematic. While Governor Eric Holcomb is lifting the statewide mask mandate to an advisory, there is still a lot that can happen at the local level. 

The next step for county health officials is deciding whether to renew the public health order. If it is not renewed, the ordinance on fines essentially becomes meaningless because it will go away at the first council meeting in April, according to Fox.  

On the other hand, if the health order is renewed, then that puts teeth behind the renewal or modification of the ordinance, according to Fox. 

Dr. Fox said there is not a big difference between the advisory and the mandate when it comes to enforcement, but not having the support of the state or big box retailers requiring masks, puts more pressure on locally. The mask advisory then becomes public perception that the downgrade means things must be a lot safer, according to Fox. 

While local health officials have the authority to make policies stricter, it puts them in a tough spot, according to Fox. With the infection rate still high and only expected to get worse, Fox described the situation like Fourth of July.  

Dr. Fox expects county health officials to finalize plans within the next couple of days. 

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