INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana will remain in Stage 4.5 of its reopening plan and require citizens to wear masks until Sept. 25.
Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the decision during his weekly briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic Wednesday, noting that while data points like the overall positivity rate and hospitalizations are stable, they haven’t declined enough to warrant a full reopening.
“Masks are key, physical distancing, managing our way through this, good hygiene: All of those things add up to put you in a very strong position,” Holcomb said. “And then we can continue to see more people go back to work and go back to school.”
At the same time, many parts of the state are already open or moving to reopen, including local school districts and colleges that decided to return to in-person classes this fall.
Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said that’s why the state is also building a new dashboard that will offer recommendations to each of Indiana’s 92 counties. Using a ranked, color-coded system based on three metrics — the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 cases, the positivity rate and the change in percent positivity from the previous week — the dashboard will help compare where counties stand on a map.
Box said the new dashboard will launch next Wednesday on the state health department’s website and rank counties in four possible categories, ranging from a code blue to the most severe rating, code red. The categories are intended to offer recommendations to K-12 schools in the counties when making decisions about how to keep students and educators safe.
Daviess County, for example, is currently in the red category. Box said this means schools are advised to cancel extracurricular activities and move middle and high-school students to virtual learning.
But what the rankings don’t trigger, Box said, is any required action counties must take — it will be their decision to make changes, as has been the case for the governor’s statewide mask mandate. And all counties are recommended to keep at least one school open regardless of their ranking to help families with remote learning, food security and other issues.
In general, Box said the path forward to reopening is the same as it was when the pandemic first emerged in the spring and forced Indiana citizens home: Social distancing, good hygiene and wearing masks in public. Box urged Hoosiers in the briefing to follow these practices if they want to reopen. She cited challenges in enforcing mask-wearing at the local level.
Dr. Woody Myers, a Democrat running against Holcomb and a former Indiana state health commissioner, argued in a statement more needs to be done to enforce the mask mandate so the state can better drive down COVID-19 numbers and move forward with reopening.
“If state government is hearing from local governments that the no penalty mask order is still an issue, as Dr. Box says, the governor could follow the lead of other governors and put in place a proper mask order with criminal penalties,” Myers said.
The state reported another 971 COVID-19 cases Wednesday, bringing the total confirmed to 89,359. State health officials also confirmed an additional 18 deaths, leaving the total at 3,041. Another 218 individuals are believed to have died from COVID-19.
The statewide positivity rate has plateaued, however, standing at 6.6% as of Aug. 19. The positivity rate was recorded at 7.6% a month ago when the mask mandate first went into effect.
In addition to expanding how it reports data, Box said the health department is also stepping up contact tracing efforts by hiring more staff. There are now some 1,200 contact tracers between the state and local health departments, and 76% of individuals contacted as part of the contact tracing have responded and completed interviews.
A statewide moratorium on evictions expired Aug. 14, leaving Indiana renters at risk of homelessness if they’re unable to pay back late rent.
The state will now also offer tenants the opportunity to resolve disputes with their landlords outside of eviction court. The dispute resolution program is in addition to a statewide rental assistance program that launched earlier this summer to provide financial aid to tenants through their landlords.
Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush explained in Wednesday’s briefing that around 130 facilitators are now available to help landlords and tenants at no cost so the parties can reach a decision about payment plans and other alternatives to eviction.
“These disputes carry high stakes for both parties,” Rush said. “And until now, the way to resolve them was to go to court, pay a filing fee, maybe hire a lawyer and take time off work.”
The facilitators, Rush said, are experienced judges, registered mediators and lawyers who’ve volunteered their time to help tenants and landlords resolve their issues. The mediators will be paid for their help using money from the federal CARES Act and the Indiana Bar Foundation.
Here are Wednesday’s numbers:
Statewide — 89,359 positive cases, up 971; 3,041 deaths, up 18; 1,022,537 unique individuals tested, up 11,955; 7-day positivity rate — all tests, 5.2%; 7-day positivity rate — unique individuals, 6.6%; 7-day positivity rate — cumulative, 8.7%.
Elkhart County — 5,439 positive cases, up 42; 97 deaths, zero new; 41,350 unique individuals tested, up 302; positivity rate — all tests, 13.15%; 7-day positivity rate, 6.7%; 7-day positivity rate — unique individuals, 10.5%.
LaGrange County — 585 positive cases, three new; 11 deaths, zero new; 2,940 unique individuals tested, up 31; positivity rate — all tests, 19.9%; 7-day positivity rate, 3.4%; 7-day positivity rate — unique individuals, 2.5%.
Noble County — 775 positive cases, up two; 30 deaths, zero new; 7,215 unique individuals tested, up 41; positivity rate — all tests, 10.72%; 7-day positivity rate, 5.1%; 7-day positivity rate — unique individuals, 6.2%.
Kosciusko County — 1,002 positive cases, up nine; 16 deaths, zero four; 10,665 unique individuals tested, up 108; positivity rate — all tests, 9.39%; 7-day positivity rate, 10.0%; 7-day positivity rate — unique individuals, 14.3%.
St. Joseph County — 4,823 positive cases, up 130; 90 deaths, zero new; 56,946 unique individuals tested, up 1,307; positivity rate — all tests, 8.4%; 7-day positivity rate, 9.7%; 7-day positivity rate — unique individuals, 12.5%.
Marshall County — 864 positive cases, up eight; 23 deaths, zero new; 9,475 unique individuals tested, up 69; positivity rate — all tests, 9.12%; 7-day positivity rate, 2.3%; 7-day positivity rate — unique individuals, 4.3%.