INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana's statewide face mask order will remain in place for another month as Gov. Eric Holcomb said Wednesday it was still needed to control the coronavirus spread.
Holcomb first issued the mask order last month because of a renewed growth in the number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations across Indiana since he had started easing business and travel restrictions in early May.
The Republican governor he was also extending the state's limits on crowd sizes for restaurants, bars and public events. Those orders were all set to expire late Wednesday unless the governor acted.
Holcomb said he was pleased the state's rate of new coronavirus cases has been holding steady in recent weeks and "we don't want that to trend up. We'd like to see it start to trend down."
No penalties are included in Holcomb's order for violators of the state mask mandate, which directs face covering use by anyone ages 8 and older in any indoor public or business areas and at outdoor public spaces when sufficient distancing can't be maintained. It also requires masks in schools for grades 3 and above by students, teachers and other employees.
Holcomb acknowledged many residents aren't following the order to wear face masks and said he would continue emphasizing education over penalties.
"There are some folks who don't believe it helps," Holcomb said. "I would disagree and offer science as the counterargument to that."
Democratic governor candidate Woody Myers, who is challenging Holcomb in the November election, said Holcomb should join other governors by including possible criminal penalties in the mask mandate.
"Ensuring 'law and order' is a critical component of public health management," said Myers, a physician and former state health commissioner.
Holcomb's announcement means Indiana restaurants will continue to be allowed 75% capacity in their dining rooms, while bars, nightclubs, bowling alleys, museums and movie theaters can be open at half capacity. The state will also continue its current 250-person limit on social gatherings unless health officials have approved safety plans for those events.
State health officials on Wednesday recorded 18 more coronavirus-related deaths. That raised the state's pandemic death toll to 3,259, including confirmed and presumed coronavirus cases, in the five months since Indiana's first fatality was reported in mid-March, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
Indiana's COVID-19 death rate has remained steady since the mask order took effect July 27. Both coronavirus hospitalizations and the seven-day average of 920 newly confirmed infections as of Tuesday have remained slightly higher than a month ago.
Dr. Kristina Box, the state health commissioner, said while Indiana hospital's had maintained stable intensive care unit and ventilator capacity for additional coronavirus patients, the statewide hospitalization of 987 COVID-19 patients as of Monday was up nearly two-thirds from June's low of 595 patients.
Holcomb said he wasn't setting a certain level of coronavirus cases at which the state restrictions would be lifted but that he believed the mask order and other steps were keeping the COVID-19 spread in check.
"I shudder to think about where we'd be had we just said 'Come what may,' we're just going to continue to act like this isn't an infectious virus that's spreading through airborne droplets," Holcomb said.
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