Indiana is nearing a year under the coronavirus public health emergency issued by Gov. Eric Holcomb as some of his fellow Republicans in the state Legislature aren’t letting up on attempts to rein in the authority he’s used to impose mask rules and restrictions on businesses and crowds.
Holcomb this past week signed an executive order extending the state’s health emergency and mask mandate until March 1, an action he took three days after a Republican House committee chairman took action on a bill to broadly limit such public health orders and questioned the effectiveness of face masks in preventing COVID-19 spread.
Republican legislative leaders have kept their distance from that proposal, while saying they expect lawmakers to give themselves greater oversight of long-lasting use of the governor’s emergency powers after months of criticism from some conservatives of Holcomb’s steps and government intrusion on personal freedom.
Governors across the country are facing similar pushbacks and Holcomb says he doesn’t want to give up the authority to act quickly.
“What I don’t want to do is sacrifice any of the approaches that we’ve taken, that have gotten us to this day,” Holcomb said. “Here, we are trending in the right direction. … I almost grieve at the deniers and defiers because that just means everyone else has to do more or stand by and watch.”
The coronavirus has killed nearly 10,000 people in Indiana, with almost 60% of those deaths in the past three months during the state’s most lethal surge, according to state health department statistics.
Holcomb, however, is further easing restrictions on crowd sizes as the state’s pace of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths has dropped since peaking in early December.
The greatest rebuff toward Holcomb since the legislative session started in early January came with Republican Rep. Bob Morris of Fort Wayne adding provisions to a bill that would prohibit state or local health orders imposing limits on the number of customers allowed inside a business or restricting medical services that hospitals could provide, along with blocking restrictions on religious services or private schools.
Morris, chairman of the House commerce committee, argued the orders had unfairly hurt small businesses while large chain stores operated freely and wrongly targeted religious services, including attendance limits for funerals and weddings — even though Holcomb lifted restrictions on religious services in May.
“How long are we going to limit churches and capacities and how people worship?” Morris said. “How long does it go on until no one is going to church because our government’s restricted what goes on there?”
Democratic Rep. Rita Fleming, a physician from Jeffersonville, maintained during the committee meeting that it wasn’t wise to roll back coronavirus safeguards, including mask wearing and distancing.
Morris pushed back on that argument.
“In reality, we really aren’t sure if masks work, correct?’ Morris asked.
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston, in his first year in the top legislative position, wouldn’t directly criticize Morris, while saying he was grateful for the work of health officials throughout the pandemic.
“I’ve been clear on my encouragement to wearing masks,” Huston said. “It seems the vast, vast, vast majority of the scientific and medical community agree that wearing masks are important and I will stand by those.”
Discontent over Holcomb’s executive orders fueled Libertarian Donald Rainwater’s campaign for governor last year. Holcomb easily won reelection, but Rainwater also finished ahead of Democratic candidate Woody Myers in about a third of Indiana’s 92 counties — in rural areas whose legislators pack the large GOP majorities in the House and Senate.
The Senate, meanwhile, is advancing a bill that would designate religious activities as essential services and prohibit any restrictions on them greater than essential businesses, along with another allowing the public to appeal local health orders to county or city elected boards.
Legislative leaders say they’re certain lawmakers will end up with more say in future long-term emergencies.
A bill sponsored by House Majority Leader Matt Lehman of Berne would require the General Assembly to be called into session for an extension of a governor’s emergency order beyond 60 days but doesn’t limit any current authority or require lawmakers to endorse the orders.
Huston said he believed Lehman was “really working to find the right spot” for legislators to have their say.
“Legislative bodies aren’t going to be able to manage crises as flexibly, as easily as the executive bodies,” Huston said. “Governor Holcomb has just done an outstanding job and I couldn’t be more supportive of the job he’s done.”