Indy council ratifies COVID orders after Legislature nullifies them with veto override

The Indianapolis City-County Council on Monday reinstated pandemic public health orders from the Marion County Department of Public Health, just a few hours after Indiana lawmakers undid them in a veto override.

The Democratic-majority council’s vote—which passed 19-5 along party lines—keeps a citywide mask mandate and restaurant capacity limits in place in Indianapolis.

The Republican-controlled Legislature met earlier Monday to override Gov. Eric Holcomb’s veto of a bill that strips local health officials of the authority to impose restrictions that are stricter than the state without first receiving approval from the local legislative body. In Indianapolis, that’s the City-County Council.

That law took effect immediately after the override vote. So on Monday night, Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the county health department, asked the council to “take swift action” to reinstate the department’s orders, warning in response to questions that the area would have essentially no pandemic regulations otherwise.

“Basically if you do not pass this proposal, we have no restrictions for Marion County,” Caine said.

Caine told the council that “throughout our COVID-19 pandemic, the Marion County Public Health Department has worked very closely with our local, state, and federal officials, as well as our partners in health, education, and the many sectors of our economy, embracing best practices and what we consider smart public health policies, while preserving and protecting our local economy to the greatest extent possible.”

“The ability to make quick decisions at a local level is very critical to protecting our Hoosiers during a public health crisis,” she said.

Some Republican lawmakers, however, have been critical of actions take by local health officials and Holcomb, a Republican, saying they restrictions have gone too far and hurt the state and local economy. The Legislature had previously overridden Holcomb’s veto of a bill that would give lawmakers the ability to call themselves into a special session during state emergencies.

In a separate bill, lawmakers took aim at local officials. In addition to Marion County, Elkhart and Monroe counties had stricter public health orders than the rest of Indiana.

Democrat and Republican councilors were at odds Monday night over who should have final say on public health orders: the county health department or the council.

“When I check our current roster, we have no medical doctors that serve on the Indianapolis City-County Council,” said Democrat Majority Leader Maggie Lewis. “Therefore, I think it’s up to us, as leaders of this community, to get behind Dr. Caine. … She’s the expert, not us.”

“I think the legislative branch of the city-county [government] should be the one creating ordinances, … creating guidelines. That’s not the duty of the executive branch,” said Councilor Joshua Bain, a Republican. “All we’re doing is shifting our responsibility over to the county health department.”

The council’s ratification isn’t the end of the discussion on local public health orders.

“The way these orders are set up, assuming the council approves, they’ll go back into force, and then if there’s changes, be they less restrict[ive] or they, [for] some unfortunate reason that they have to become stricter, then they come before the council again,” said Paul Babcock, president and CEO of the Marion County Health and Hospital Corporation.

The council can also rescind the measures, which Babcock said he and Caine could ask for directly when the pandemic eases.

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