Indiana county OKs fining businesses violating mask order as COVID cases soar

Businesses in a northern Indiana county could now face fines if they fail to enforce a county mask order requiring employees of businesses to wear masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The move comes as the number of Indiana counties having a heightened risk of COVID-19 rose.

The St. Joseph County Commissioners passed an ordinance Tuesday allowing the county health department to fine businesses violating the order between $50 and $250 for each day that the business remains out of compliance.

Under the ordinance, the health department can only fine businesses whose employees are not wearing masks. Businesses would not face fines if their customers fail to wear masks.

Business owners and county leaders said the new ordinance comes at a crucial time with coronavirus cases surging in the area and across Indiana.

“It’s not going to solve the problem but it just gives us another vehicle to help improve compliance in public spaces,” said Dr. Mark Fox, the county’s deputy health officer.

Fox said that if the county health department learns that employees at a business are not wearing masks, they will work with that business, WSBT-TV reported.

“And if there’s a persistent disregard for that guidance, that would be the setting at which a business would be at risk of being fined,” he said.

A public health mask order has been in place in St. Joseph County since May, the South Bend Tribune reported. That order remains in effect through the end of the year and is likely to be renewed into next year. Last week, Gov. Eric Holcomb extended Indiana’s mask mandate for another month. Holcomb announced Tuesday he and first lady Janet Holcomb are quarantining after several members of his security detail tested positive for COVID-19

Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of Indiana’s counties are now listed in the highest-risk category of coronavirus spread as Wednesday’s update from the state health department showed a 60% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in just two weeks.

Health officials also reported 60 more coronavirus deaths, with those added to Sunday’s total making it Indiana’s single deadliest COVID-19 day since the pandemic began in March.

The health department listed 21 of Indiana’s 92 counties in the highest of its four risk levels for coronavirus spread, up from nine counties in the red level last week. Those additional red-level counties include northwestern Indiana’s Lake County, the state’s second most populous, and Fort Wayne’s Allen County.

Allen County’s health commissioner scaled back capacity at bars, restaurants and gyms and issued restrictions on gatherings Tuesday amid a growing number of COVID-19 cases

Beginning Sunday at noon, restaurants and bars are restricted to 50 percent capacity and are forced to close between midnight and 5 a.m., Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter said. Gyms also are limited to 50 percent capacity.

Sutter’s order also places limits on social gatherings and events depending on the county’s status in the state’s color-coded chart of COVID-19 severity.

Allen County became the latest local government in Indiana to impose such restrictions because of the pandemic after Indianapolis and Gary issued similar restrictions.

The county reported 304 new residents tested positive and nine more residents died Tuesday, bringing its totals to 14,889 cases and 273 deaths.

In addition, the city of Fort Wayne is closing local government offices, parks department offices, community centers and youth centers beginning Monday through Jan. 19.

The county’s new order does not affect salons or schools, Sutter said at a news conference.

Sutter said the restrictions were aimed at slowing the growth in new COVID-19 cases, protecting hospitals and health-care workers and avoiding unnecessary deaths while remaining sensitive to business concerns.

COVID-19 cases in the county are doubling every seven days, Sutter said.

State officials listed 70 counties in the second-highest risk level and none received the lowest-level blue rating.

Indiana hospitals were treating 3,040 COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday — a nearly 300% increase since Holcomb announced in late September an end to nearly all statewide business and crowd restrictions.

Indiana had at least 52 coronavirus-related deaths on Sunday, pushing it past the previous high of 50 during the state’s initial surge of cases in April.

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