Holcomb urges virus safety steps, not tougher rules; will extend eviction moratorium

Indiana will keep its current coronavirus restrictions in place for at least most of August, with Gov. Eric Holcomb choosing Wednesday to encourage compliance with safety measures amid continued concerns about recent growth in the state’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Holcomb also said he would briefly extend a moratorium on evictions that was scheduled to expire this week.

Holcomb announced that statewide limits including crowd sizes for restaurants, bars and public events would remain in effect until Aug. 27. The Republican governor lifted the state’s stay-at-home order and began easing business restrictions in early May, but he’s delayed the final lifting of crowd limits for the past month.

Holcomb is leaving it up to city and county officials to take any more aggressive measures, such as closing bars, which have been linked to a rise in cases among young adults across the country. That’s despite fears among federal officials that Indiana and other Midwestern states could see a significant jump in COVID-19 infections.

While Indianapolis officials have ordered bars in the city shut down, Holcomb emphasized that steps such as wearing face masks as required under a new state mandate and proper distancing should be followed to slow the virus spread.

“We think we can get there with good enforcement on the ground with the guidelines that are there right now,” Holcomb said.

School reopening

State officials declined Wednesday to recommend any statewide action on school reopenings as school districts across Indiana make widely differing decisions on whether to have students back in classrooms.

Students returned Wednesday to full-time in-person classes in the western Indianapolis suburb of Avon, while Indianapolis Public Schools officials announced plans to conduct all classes online until at least October. IPS said that “will allow more time for the number of COVID-19 cases in Marion County to stabilize and decrease to a less dangerous level.”

Dr. Kristina Box, the state health commissioner, said her agency was giving recommendations to school leaders on steps such as limiting student interaction and assigning classroom and bus seats. She also pointed to the statewide mask order that requires face coverings at school for those in grades 3 and higher.

The COVID-19 infection levels vary across the state and each school district needs to assess the risk in their community, Box said.

“To say this is a specific number that we’re going to use is really not appropriate,” she said. “Schools are really actively engaged in deciding what is safest and best for their students and when to open.”

Eviction moratorium

Holcomb said he would extend the state order banning evictions or renters and mortgage foreclosures until Aug. 14.

That ban has been in effect since the early days of the national pandemic response in March and the looming expiration of such freezes across the country has raised worries about an eviction crisis among people who’ve been unable to pay for their housing.

State officials encouraged residents who need rent payment assistance to apply for grants from a $25 million program with the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority funded by the federal coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress. That Indiana program has already received more than 20,000 applications.

Separately, an Indiana Supreme Court Task Force on Wednesday issued a report listing recommendations for dealing with an anticipated surge in evictions after the moratorium expires.

Lake Michigan beaches closed

The city of Gary’s beaches along Lake Michigan were closed Wednesday for two weeks due to a surge in new COVID-19 cases in the northwestern Indiana city. Gary joins other lakefront cities that have taken similar steps.

Mayor Jerome Prince cited the beaches’ crowded conditions on Tuesday in ordering their closure. His order took effect Wednesday and shuttered Gary’s beaches, including the popular Marquette Park Beach, and their parking lots.

Prince said Gary police will enforce the closures by patrolling the city’s entire shoreline, and anyone found on the beaches would be removed.

Prince said Gary’s health commissioner had recommended the beaches be closed “to effectively control the inundation of our parks by residents and visitors,” The Times of Northwest Indiana reported.

“We continue to see almost daily double-digit increases in our new COVID-19 positive cases in Gary,” the mayor said in a statement.

He added that he “will assess the situation over the next two weeks and explore ways we can reopen our beaches and still protect the public.”

Gary is the latest city in northwestern Indiana to close its beaches because of overcrowding and concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. It joins Whiting and Michigan City in imposing recent beach closures.

Latest virus spread

The state health department on Wednesday added eight more COVID-19 fatalities to the state’s death toll, raising that to 2,932 since mid-March.

Over the past month, Indiana’s rolling seven-day average number of new confirmed cases has more than doubled to about 800 a day, while the state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations have grown by about 50% during that time.

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