GOSHEN — County officials have ended a COVID-19 safety ordinance aimed at businesses, but a mask mandate at the county level continues.
The Elkhart County Board of Commissioners on Monday voted to rescind a November ordinance that laid out COVID-19 mitigation directives for businesses. They had voted to strip the penalties from the ordinance in March, noting that no fines had ever been issued.
Following the vote, Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait announced a new public health order effective until May 14 that requires face mask use to continue. She said she would like to continue the mask mandate, particularly when the county is under the state’s yellow, orange or red advisory levels, because of the number of people who still haven’t been vaccinated.
“I am very concerned for our community, in particular our health systems, elderly and minority populations and our children that are currently not protected from COVID-19,” Wait said. “Certainly for those individuals who have chosen not to be vaccinated, they have made the personal decision to take that risk of what the infection might do to them. They have been afforded the opportunity to make that decision, and unfortunately there are many in our community who have not yet had the chance to make that decision because the vaccine has not been available to them, and this is for our most vulnerable population, our children.”
She pointed to an upswing in the number of positive cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks. Over the last month, Elkhart County has tripled its positive cases from a seven-day moving average of 19 per day to 58, and the seven-day moving average positivity rate has gone from a low of 4.5 percent to 7.5 percent.
And she highlighted the fact that two COVID-19 variants with higher rates of transmission have been found in the county.
Capacity limits on events and gatherings continue under the new order but have been relaxed, including a recommendation that social distancing can be reduced from six feet to three feet. But that makes mask wearing even more important, she added.
Masks are required under the red, orange and yellow advisories and strongly recommended under the blue. Businesses can be at 100 percent capacity at every level but special events can’t increase from half to full capacity until the advisory level reaches blue.
And while the health department will continue to accept and respond to safety plans, they are no longer required. She said the department will support any business that doesn’t want to increase its capacity yet.
“We are happy to help make any event safe for every individual in Elkhart County, and we highly encourage that people submit those plans if they want us to read them,” Wait said. “We’re not requiring the plans anymore, but if they have a concern or they want backing, we do have plenty of our businesses in our community that want masks to continue in their facilities along with special events.”
More time for vaccination
After the health officer’s new order was announced, Dan Nafziger, Goshen Hospital chief medical officer, and Randy Christophel, Goshen Health CEO, spoke in favor of keeping masks on for another 45 days.
Christophel noted that the state only recently opened vaccine eligibility to all adults and that appointments are being set several weeks out. He said the county is close to being in the clear but will only turn the corner through vaccination.
Almost 31,000 people in Elkhart County have been fully vaccinated, according to Wait.
“By extending this, we want to give everybody the opportunity to get vaccinated. If we do that, we take a significant step towards getting back to normal. If we don’t, we take the real risk of moving backwards,” Christophel said. “The data show that we’re already on the rise. So if we turn off the mask mandate, our data will continue to rise, maybe significantly increase. Businesses want our support on this. It’s gonna be hard for businesses to keep a mask mandate if the county government does not support that. ... It’s not forever. It’s just helping us get past this time period to allow people to get vaccinated.”
Nafziger urged people to consider employees who may still be at risk of exposure. He said driving down the number of infections may be the best way for people to be comfortable going back to restaurants and other businesses again.
Elkhart General Hospital President Carl Risk II and Michelle Bache, vice president of medical affairs, also wrote to Wait to urge the mask order to continue.
After some further discussion Monday morning, Commissioner Frank Lucchese made a plea for cooperation with any individual business that continues to enforce mask wearing.
“If a company asks you to wear a mask, please wear a mask,” he said. “If you have the exemption, I understand that too, but please don’t create a ruckus or a fuss if the company’s asking you.”