ANDERSON — Madison County’s sheriff said Thursday that his department would not enforce the governor’s executive order requiring face masks to be worn in public places “until we receive further clarification.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Eric Holcomb issued the executive order, set to go into effect Monday, to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
People over the age of 8 would have to wear a mask in public indoor places, as well as public outdoor areas when social distancing is not possible. Not wearing a mask would be a Class B misdemeanor, which could result in as much as 180 days in jail and $1,000 in fines.
Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, though, said Holcomb lacks the authority to enact such a mandate. Hill said Wednesday that the state of emergency of the pandemic has passed and that the governor can no longer issue executive orders.
The State Legislature, according to Hill, would have to convene to pass a law mandating masks.
Sheriff Scott Mellinger is waiting for the debate to be settled.
“Once it is clarified whether or not this law is legal in its implementation, I will spell out what our enforcement response will be,” the sheriff said in an email to The Herald Bulletin.
The sheriff’s department will not respond to calls reporting behavior “exclusively tied to” someone not wearing a face mask, Mellinger said.
Indiana has seen a spike in coronavirus cases in the last several weeks as some counties and cities, such as Marion County, Lake County and Fishers, have enacted local mask mandates.
Madison County Health Department Administrator Stephanie Grimes said Thursday that the health department was already overloaded with complaints before the mandate.
“We’re a medium-sized department, at best, with less than 20 employees, (and not) everyone is dedicated to mask enforcement,” Grimes said.
Other state executive orders during the pandemic have included an enforcement mechanism for counties to follow, according to Grimes. Until the official order comes out, though, she said it was unclear whether enforcement will fall on the health department or local authorities.
Since businesses have required masks for employees, Grimes said, the health department follows up with every formal complaint. Sometimes not much can be done.
“About all we can do at this point is follow up with a restaurant, say ‘Your employees are supposed to be wearing masks,’ and they’ll probably say ‘Yes, we know,’ and they’ll put their masks on,” Grimes said. “But as soon as we leave … It’s nearly impossible to enforce it the way it is.”
Local resident Steven Hartzell doesn’t mind the mask mandate and thinks it will help save people from getting coronavirus. But Hartzell wasn’t sure how enforcement would go and predicted that some people would be resistant.
“Anywhere that sells something, you can just turn away customers,” Hartzell said. “But other than that, it can be hard (to enforce).”
Another local resident, Lynn Pharris, noted that she hasn’t seen her grandchildren since the beginning of March because of the coronavirus and said people shouldn’t get mad about the mandate.
“Anderson is full of senior citizens now that can’t really afford to take a chance,” Pharris explained. “I think it’s just common courtesy to comply.”