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Why a mask mandate in Indiana is legal

During a public health emergency, the executive branch has wide latitude in deciding the best ways to protect health.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb's mask mandate went into effect for Indiana on July 27. While the governor and local law enforcement said that it was not directly enforceable, it is legal.

During a public health emergency, the executive branch has wide latitude in deciding the best ways to protect health. It is the same power that allowed for the closure of schools, businesses, and travel restrictions back in March.

Those challenging the legality have not had much success. In such cases in other states, critics argued against the vagueness of a mask mandate or that procedures were not followed in putting the mandate in place.

"It’s gonna be hard, even though there are people talking about suing…those cases in other states have not been successful," said Seema Mohapatra, associate professor and Dean’s Fellow at Indiana University.

She said that because of the urgency of a public health emergency, a governor can move more quickly and with more freedom in actions to protect the people. 

Federal courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States, have upheld the ability of governors and mayors to take aggressive steps during a public health emergency.

RELATED: It may be weeks before mask mandate affects infection numbers

Mohapatra said what helps with the mask mandate, is that more and more studies point to the effectiveness of masks in slowing or stopping the spread of COVID-19. However, the initial mixed messaging led to confusion and mistrust.

“You need to have a positive message about why someone will want to wear a mask,” Mohapatra said.

She said public leaders need to explain that we are learning more about what is effective in stopping the spread of the virus. Mohapatra said there needs to be consistent messaging backed by studies.

In terms of a mask mandate, Mohapatra said it is much less intrusive than closing businesses, schools and other measures taken back during the early weeks of the pandemic. It is something being seen again in Indianapolis, as the mayor closed bars and nightclubs and restricted restaurant hours after an increase in COVID-19 cases.

RELATED: Indianapolis postponing school, closing bars, other restrictions after increase in COVID-19 cases

Gov. Holcomb also said last week that all options are on the table when looking at ways to curb the increase of COVID-19 cases.

His mask mandate applies to all Hoosiers 8 years and older who are indoors, on public transportation or outdoors when they can't social distance. 

Students in third grade and above will have to wear masks in school, along with faculty and staff.

RELATED: Gov. Holcomb signs executive order mandating masks statewide

People who have a medical condition that keeps them from wearing a mask are exempt, in addition to the exception when someone is eating, drinking or participating in strenuous physical activity.

Masks are also required for co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, with exceptions for strenuous physical activity. 

Masks will be strongly recommended for those ages 2-7.

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