ELKHART — Gov. Eric Holcomb on Friday said the Elkhart County Health Department should not base decisions about COVID-19 restrictions on the potential political implications, including the governor’s own reelection chances.
His comments came after ECHD spokesperson Melanie Sizemore said Wednesday that the department will not reintroduce restrictions until after the election. She specifically mentioned the governor, who is up for reelection on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
“That could be a political disaster for him, meaning he could lose the election,” Sizemore said.
Holcomb, visiting Elkhart on Friday, said those concerns should play no role for the ECHD or the state.
“They absolutely should not have a political calculation on a global pandemic and its impact on our citizens. Our decisions – local, state – should be based on the facts and science and medical direction,” Holcomb said.
But Holcomb, who imposed a stay-at-home order in the spring and continued other regulations until September, will not bring those restrictions back, even though both Elkhart County and Indiana have significantly more cases than at any previous point and are also seeing an uptick in deaths.
He said the state was in a different position early on in the pandemic, so the need for restrictions was greater. There was not as much personal protective equipment available, businesses had not yet found ways to operate safely, and it was unclear to what degree hospitals could take in people who were sick.
“A lot of that has now, for the better, improved to the point where we can manage our way through this,” he said.
But Elkhart County has more COVID-19 inpatients than ever before, to a degree that Elkhart General is above normal capacity and has to cut elective procedures. At 58, about a third of all inpatients at Elkhart General are there for COVID-19. Goshen Hospital has 33 COVID-19 inpatients.
Another reason why new restrictions are not necessary statewide, according to Holcomb, is that Hoosiers now know that they should wear masks, social distance and wash their hands frequently. The governor praised the Elkhart County Health Department for its efforts to educate the public on that. But the Health Department is continuing the effort without believing in its effects.
“I don’t think we’re changing anybody’s minds,” Sizemore, the department’s spokesperson, said Wednesday.
Holcomb didn’t answer yes or no when asked whether he thinks the message is getting through to anyone who does not already believe it. Instead, he said, “I refuse to give up.”
The governor did not say whether he thinks Elkhart County should impose its own restrictions but said that different levels of government, including counties, cities and schools, have the option to adjust their approach to what is happening in their specific communities. He said he trusts Hoosiers to do their part of the work to defeat the coronavirus and that those who choose not to take the virus seriously only prolong the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, people working in manufacturing have contacted The Elkhart Truth, telling stories of employers not following COVID-19 guidelines. But since many are afraid to lose the jobs that they depend on, most decline to speak on the record. Some choose to report their employees to the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Indiana has received more than 4,000 complaints about coronavirus-related workplace safety, which is more than three times the number of all complaints in a normal year. According to the Post, the state is conducting 17 on-site inspections, all of which are still ongoing. But according to Holcomb, OSHA has the resources to handle the situation.
He said what he hears and has seen when visiting businesses is that the COVID-19 protocols are working.
“They have figured out a way that, that’s the safest place people are all day,” he said.
If businesses are found to not be operating safely, it is up to the counties to use fines to make them comply or, ultimately, shut them down, Holcomb said. The state is there to help counties make those decisions.
Holcomb likely to win
Holcomb was in Elkhart on Friday as a part of a tour of the state, mostly to sit down with journalists, but also to be at a few events. He held no events in Elkhart County, which he is almost certain to win.
Being opposed in this election by Democrat Woody Myers, who has criticized the governor’s lack of coronavirus-related restrictions; and Libertarian Donald Rainwater, who has run a surprisingly successful campaign based on his opposition to coronavirus-related restrictions, Holcomb is selling himself to Hoosiers as the Goldilocks governor: not too much, not too little, but just right.
Rainwater is scheduled to attend an event Sunday in Elkhart County.
Holcomb was relatively unknown by Hoosiers before the pandemic but will likely defeat both of his opponents easily, as a recent Cygnal poll among 600 likely voters found he had 47 percent support. Another 29 percent say they support Myers, while 15 percent support Rainwater and 10 percent were undecided.
Election Day is Nov. 3. The deadline to request an absentee-by-mail ballot has passed, and mailed ballots must be at the Elkhart County Clerk’s Office on or before Election Day. Having the envelope postmarked for Election Day is not enough.
In-person absentee voting is open until Monday, Nov. 2, at noon. Absentee voting locations are listed on the Elkhart County Clerk’s Office website.