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13 WTHR Indianapolis | Indianapolis Local News & Weather

Fountain County health official calls for better state enforcement for governor's mask mandate

The outbreak in that county in the western part of the state is spiking. It's all happening in the same county where an elected official is refusing to wear a mask.

COVINGTON, Ind — Indiana's health commissioner is alarmed by the COVID-19 numbers in Fountain County, near the Indiana/Illinois line.

The outbreak in that county in the western part of the state is spiking. It's all happening in the same county where an elected official is refusing to wear a mask.

The county's health officer wants better enforcement from the state.

Indiana's "mask up" campaign has gotten the thumbs down in Fountain County, where COVID-19 numbers are soaring.

Data from the Indiana State Department of Health shows weekly cases double the threshold of what's considered alarming.

Fountain County's rate has hit 495 weekly cases per 100,000 residents and the 7-day positivity rate is more than 17%

"One of the issues there is a significant resistance to social distancing, wearing masks," said State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box, who expressed dismay over what she also described as a lack of understanding about the spread of COVID-19.

It's not just rural residents refusing to adhere to the guidelines, but the Fountain County clerk is publicly refusing to wear a mask.

"I'm seriously concerned for our constitutional rights and I am part of the government. But I still will not be part of the government's overreach," said Fountain County Clerk Paula Copenhaver by phone.

Copenhaver, who has made headlines across the state for not wearing a mask during the general election, would not divulge whether she has a medical exemption but referenced hypothetical situations.

"Is that our only option is that everybody has to wear a mask?" she countered. "I'm not against people wearing masks...but if somebody is not wearing a mask, and they have an exemption, it is none of my business what their exemption is."

When pressed about the spread of COVID-19 in Fountain County and the concerns over her actions as an elected official, she told 13News:

"I don't understand what's so hard to understand about that...why we have to act like we're in preschool, or elementary school...where somebody thinks that they have the authority to tell somebody else what they should or should not be doing. I think people are smart enough and responsible enough for themselves to make decisions for themselves," she said.

Dr. Sean Sharma, the public health officer for Fountain and Warren counties, has heard the argument before.

"While that sounds good, it's not good enough in a pandemic. In a pandemic, it's not about you or me, it's about we and us. So individual responsibility just isn't going to cut it," he said.

Sharma said he wants businesses to require masks for service and elected officials to show leadership by following the governor's mandate.

He believes penalties and fines could help, but he's not convinced county health departments should shoulder the enforcement for violations.

"We need help," he said. "We just don't have the staff or the resources to do that along with the other things that we have to do right now. So that potentially means getting law enforcement on board."

It's a topic Governor Eric Holcomb failed to address during his COVID-19 update on Wednesday. Instead, he put enforcement in the lap of county health departments.

"Local health departments are empowered on these enforcement measures and we are not just willing, but able, that's in part why we're here to assist local communities," said the governor.

The state's help stops short of enforcement, but includes visits from Homeland Security officials to help business owners understand why a mask mandate could help keep their doors open.

Sharma said he's worried about the coming months, especially since he can't get his county on the same page to slow the spread now.

"It's about people's lives. I think that when we really sit down and consider the implications of not doing it, not putting enforcement behind that mandate, I think the risk is too much," he said.