INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Friday a relaxing of business restrictions imposed to slow the coronavirus spread for much of the state, allowing more manufacturers, retailers and shopping malls to open their doors, starting Monday, under health and social distancing guidelines.

The governor’s new directive lifts travel restrictions under the statewide stay-at-home order that took effect March 25, but doesn’t allow restaurants to resume in-person dining or hair salon reopenings for another week. Fitness centers, movie theaters, bars and casinos are among the businesses that will remain closed until at least late May.

Holcomb said he decided to ease restrictions in 89 of the state’s 92 counties because he believes Indiana’s COVID-19 spread has stabilized enough that hospitals are able to care for those who are seriously ill.

“Our effort going forward will be all about managing through this crisis,” Holcomb said. “I’m praying for a vaccine but we gotta do what we can do right now. And we’re taking the responsible steps and allowing folks to responsibly and safely return to some normal aspects of their life.”

The new directive removes churches and other religious sites from limits on gathering sizes effective May 8, allowing them to resume in-person services. It encourages people to wear masks when in public while raising the allowance on gatherings from the current 10 people to 25 people.

Roughly 200 protesters gathered outside the Statehouse as Holcomb prepared to make his announcement. Most were not wearing masks or observing distancing guidelines as they shouted and held signs, with sayings that included “Freedom is essential” and “Liberate Indiana.”

Local reaction

Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder said he was still parsing the governor’s announcement but said he was curious to hear whether it would match what businesses were planning to do anyway. He said companies started calling this week to ensure they were implementing safety protocols, though they weren’t really asking permission to reopen.

“People are taking it seriously, but they want to get back to work, gradually,” Yoder said. “My sense is, our community is saying they don’t want anything more in place than they have now, and they’re willing to take reasonable risks and precautions.”

Yoder said the county health and emergency management departments would continue to monitor the outbreak, and specifically the rate of hospitalization. The Indiana State Department of Health on reported two new deaths in Elkhart County related to the virus, bringing the total number of local deaths to nine.

“We live in a society where people are gonna do what they’re gonna do, and they’ll decide what level of risk they’re willing to accept,” Yoder said. “The majority want to go back to work. The medical folks are saying they’re not so sure it’s a good idea, so I guess we’ll see.”

50 percent capacity, masks

Local governments may still impose tougher restrictions to deal with outbreaks in their communities. Holcomb’s new order keeps previous restrictions in place for Marion and Lake counties, which are the state’s largest and lead Indiana in COVID-19 deaths, and Cass County in rural northern Indiana, which had a large outbreak that prompted the closing of a Tyson meatpacking plant last week.

The move comes as Indiana officials have reported nearly 1,200 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 deaths since mid-March, including 55 new fatalities announced Friday by health officials. Indiana has also seen a record-high surge of nearly 570,000 people filing jobless claims the past six weeks amid widespread business closures.

Holcomb’s plan will allow retailers and malls that have been closed as nonessential businesses to reopen Monday at 50 percent capacity. Restaurants can reopen at half capacity on May 11, with servers and kitchen workers required to wear masks.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and be life-threatening.

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