Revamped bill would severely limit government’s ability to restrict business, church operations

A Republican lawmaker is seeking to severely limit the restrictions that state and local governments can impose on businesses and churches as COVID-19 continues to spread across Indiana.

As introduced, House Bill 1519, authored by Republican Bob Morris of Fort Wayne, would only have prevented the governor, state agencies, and local government units, including local health departments, from restricting the hours a business may operate.

But on Monday, the Indiana House Commerce, Small Business and Economic Development Committee he chairs approved five amendments that widen the scope of the legislation.

The new version of the bill would prevent any state agency or political subdivision from regulating hospital services, the number of people allowed at an event or a private business and how patrons are greeted or served at restaurants and other businesses.

It would also restrict government officials from limiting the size of church gatherings, requiring church goers to wear face coverings and ordering private schools and churches to close during a pandemic.

“It’s not government’s role,” Morris said.

The committee did not vote on the bill. And several lawmakers expressed concerns about what the impact could be of eliminating the state and local governments’ ability to impose restrictions during a pandemic.

“I think that for this period of time to abandon these safeguards is very unwise,” State Rep. Rita Fleming, D-Jeffersonville, said.

Morris, however, said government doesn’t have the right to tell anyone at church what they can and cannot wear. He also questioned the effectiveness of mask wearing.

“In reality, we really aren’t sure if masks work,” Morris said.

Morris said the legislation is in response to the restrictions governments have imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but he’s also thinking long-term, because he’s concerned about how long the pandemic will last or when the next one will come.

The restrictions would apply to executive orders issued by the governor and apply to any mandates in place after April 30, 2021.

Gov. Eric Holcomb, also a Republican, has imposed capacity and other restrictions on social gatherings and businesses, including retailers, restaurants, tourist attractions and event venues, since last spring. The restrictions have at times also applied to churches.

His orders have also always allowed local governments to impose more stringent restrictions — something health departments in Marion County and several other counties have regularly done.

At several times during the pandemic, Holcomb also ordered hospitals to postpone non-emergency or elective procedures as a way to free up space for COVID-19 patients.

Holcomb started easing the restrictions in May, and he lifted nearly all restrictions by the fall.

Under Holcomb’s current executive order, in counties with the highest level of community spread of the virus, social gatherings are limited to either 25 or 50 people and restaurants and bars are required to space tables six feet apart.

The order also requires Hoosiers to wear masks in public, indoor places.

But the current order does not limit capacity in businesses, such as retailers or restaurants. It also allows local health departments to permit events with larger capacities. For example, the Marion County Health Department allowed the Indianapolis Colts to have as many as 12,500 fans at games last year.

Representatives of two catering businesses testified in support of the amended legislation, arguing that the guidelines that have been imposed by Holcomb don’t make sense because a small restaurant can have more individuals inside than can an event venue with more square feet.

Bill Nicholls, president and co-owner of the Ritz Charles in Carmel, said the company has lost about $5 million in revenue during the pandemic and has drastically reduced its staff.

He said he doesn’t understand why a restaurant can operate at full capacity, while the Ritz Charles is limited to 25 people.

“I need some better factual evidence,” Nicholls said.

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