INDIANAPOLIS — A day after Gov. Eric Holcomb had to tamp down rumors relegating COVID-19 as a “hoax” and conspiracy, and President Trump finally asked “everybody” to wear a face mask, Indiana became the third state headed by a Republican governor to mandate the now controversial facial coverings.
In just about every other nation, wearing a face mask has been seen as a common sense approach to a pandemic where an estimated 40 percent in an Indiana University Fairbanks School of Public Health study are asymptomatic. In Japan, people wear masks when they catch a common cold out of respect and safety for those around them.
“We’ve arrived at this juncture because over the past several weeks, a few things have happened,” Holcomb said at his weekly press conference. “There has been a rise of COVID positivity across the state from a low of just 3.6 percent a month ago to where we find ourselves today with a seven-day average rate of just over 7 percent. The last couple of days it rose to 8 percent.
“As a lagging indicator, our overall hospitalization has increased from about 600 a day at the end of June to about 800, where we are now,” Holcomb continued (there were 954 new cases on Thursday). “Some counties in the past that had never been a blip on the radar screen for positive tests are reporting regular double digits of positive cases now, counties like Clark and Dubois, Kosciusko, Posey.
"We have, as Hoosiers, worked very hard to get to where we are today," Holcomb said. "Businesses are open and operating at various levels of capacity. We’re eating in restaurants and working in all sorts of facilities both large and small, and we want to keep it that way. We want businesses to stay open. We don’t want to dial it back or put it in reverse or, as some are, shutting down again."
“Face coverings can and will help us blunt this increase,” Holcomb said.
On Sunday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear sounded similar alarms. “Where you look at our numbers today versus where Florida was a month ago, we have very similar numbers,” DeWine said on NBC’s Meet The Press. Beshear called Sunday’s 979 cases in Kentucky “a wake-up call.” On Wednesday, Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force warned Indianapolis and 10 other cities they were on the precipice of a significant COVID spike.
Indiana’s intensive care unit bed availability had declined to 37 percent on Tuesday, compared to 41 percent on June 1.
Holcomb responded to the COVID conspiracy rumors on Facebook, which consigned the pandemic as a “hoax” in the parlance of President Trump in March and April, as well as speculation that masks deprive people of oxygen and raise carbon dioxide levels (they don’t, as any surgeon will tell you).
“The earth is not flat, we did land on the moon, and this pandemic is real,” the governor said. “It is not just affecting our economy, it is not just putting lives on hold, it is taking lives. We just have to accept reality, and the sooner everyone does, the sooner we’ll get through this.”
On Wednesday, he called his mask mandate that will officially begin next Monday “time sensitive” because “our schools are going back. It might be one of the most important reasons when you really stop to think about it for all of us to wear face coverings. We’re asking our kids and their teachers to mask up and our kids should not be getting mixed messages throughout the day.”
That same day, Attorney General Curtis Hill called the Holcomb order invalid because under the state’s Emergency Management and Disaster Law, the statute “does not provide that a governor may issue a mandate on wearing masks.”
But Evansville city attorney Joshua Claybourn writes in a Howey Politics Indiana column, "Mandating masks is a legislative power entrusted to the legislative branch, not the governor. But what happens when the legislature willingly delegates those powers to the governor? That’s precisely what the Indiana General Assembly did in the EMDL — it provides a centralized and streamlined emergency response in the executive branch allowing the state to act more quickly and efficiently than the normal legislative process."
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Trump, and to a lesser extent Vice President Mike Pence, have been obstinate to less-than-emphatic examples of mask wearing. Both have appeared at indoor political rallies this summer where social distancing and masks were ignored.
At Tuesday’s revival of his coronavirus press briefings after a three-month hiatus during which infection rates exploded and swamped hospitals across early-opening Sunbelt states, Trump finally said, “We’re asking everybody that when you are not able to socially distance, wear a mask. Get a mask. Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact.”
The U.S. has seen more than 70,000 new documented infections a day this past week, compared to less than 200 a day for former hotspot Italy. The difference is that Italy endured a near total societal shutdown for three months, while Trump and Pence goaded Republican governors to reopen their states while ignoring Centers for Disease Control metrics.
It will go down in history as a profound missed opportunity and has cost them dearly as most national and swing state polls show them trailing Joe Biden by significant margins in the presidential race.
Asked if he wished he had done this two weeks ago, Holcomb responded, “It’s not that the voices got louder; it was the numbers got bolder,” Holcomb said.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.