You must wear a mask, or you run the risk of incurring a $1,000 fine.
Or, on second thought, don’t wear one and we won’t fine you.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb recently lapsed into the sort of public health double-speak that’s been lampooned since the coronavirus pandemic first struck the United States in March. In doing so, the governor took the teeth out of an executive order that could have saved Hoosier lives and helped the economy reopen.
On July 22, Holcomb signed an executive order, to take effect July 27, directing those age 8 and over and residing in or visiting Indiana to wear masks in public places to stanch the spread of the coronavirus. Anyone caught without a mask or an exemption could be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by as much as 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Two days later, Holcomb backpedaled by stripping the executive order of its penalties, leaving it to state and local health departments to “enforce” the mandate through “education about the importance of wearing face coverings.”
The governor bowed to the pressure of Hoosiers who complain that being forced to wear a mask infringes on their personal liberties and who prioritize personal comfort over participating in a simple measure to slow a deadly disease.
The executive order also faced challenges from Republican leaders, including state Attorney General Curtis Hill, who argued that a mask mandate shouldn’t be issued without following the legislative process of creating a new law.
That argument suggests that the pandemic emergency has passed in Indiana. Clearly, it has not. Hundreds of new COVID-19 cases are reported daily, and dozens of Hoosiers die of the disease each week. In this emergency environment, the governor should exercise the power of executive orders.
Holcomb also faced opposition to the mask mandate from some law enforcement officials who declared that they would not actively enforce it.
The pressure to erase or revise the mask mandate was intense, but Holcomb should have stuck to the initial order.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health officials advocate strongly for wearing masks, which hinder airborne respiratory droplets that transmit the disease.
Holcomb and state health officials should monitor whether the toothless mandate, which lasts through Aug. 26, is making a difference in mask-wearing practices. If Hoosiers aren’t wearing them and the coronavirus continues to surge, Holcomb should restore fines, while setting aside the draconian measure of jail time, and issue a stronger order to enforce the law.
Nobody likes public health whiplash, but in this case the alternative could be far worse.