Southern Indiana

As COVID-19 cases soar across Indiana, the Floyd County Health Department has reversed plans to implement a mask mandate at county schools.

The health department dropped the mandate after Floyd County Commissioners challenged it, citing Indiana’s State Enrolled Act 5. The law, which went into effect this year, states any local restrictions related to an emergency executive order that are more stringent than the state’s must be approved by a county or city’s governing body. The Floyd County Commissioners are the county’s executive and legislative branch and oversee the health department.

President Shawn Carruthers said the health department’s mask mandate for schools, which was supposed to take effect Friday, didn’t follow protocol. Now, each school corporation will be responsible for its own COVID-19 prevention measures.

“So legally, the order was not valid, and it had to come through the commissioners, regardless,” Carruthers said. “It wasn’t that we pulled it back or anything. It just didn’t follow the right procedures.”

Floyd County Health Officer Dr. Tom Harris issued the mandate earlier this week. It called for students in grades K-6 at all private and public schools in the county to wear masks while in the classroom. Masks were also set to be required at indoor, high-density events for all grades.

Harris said the mandate was meant to protect younger populations that aren’t yet able to get vaccinated. He said SEA 5 is being used to politicize public health.

“There were concerns in some counties that there were excessive closures, and many state legislators enacted bills to basically restrict the public health determination of the emergency and kick that over to the political side,” Harris said. “And that’s unfortunate, because politicians aren’t trained in public health.”

Monroe County Commissioners were the first board in the state to overrule a mask mandate issued by the health department. But after discussing the matter, they ultimately voted to reinstate it.

Floyd County’s challenge of the mask mandate is the latest development in a rocky relationship between Harris and the commissioners, all three of whom are Republican. In late 2020, the commissioners voted to end his tenure when COVID-19 cases were at their highest levels, before reversing their decision.

The commissioners scheduled an emergency meeting to review the mandate Monday before canceling it Friday afternoon. The cancellation came after the two bodies agreed to give control of mandates to school systems. The health department is strongly recommending schools require masking.

“Our thinking is to go back to the governor’s mandate,” Carruthers said. “The way it is now, each school district can add their own mask mandate. It gives them the authority to do what they believe is necessary, rather than a one-size-fits-all type of policy.”

Prior to the mandate reversal, Harris said court challenges to the law could theoretically work, but that it would take resources that would be hard for the small health department to gather.

“The problem is that the health department doesn’t have any assigned lawyer, other than the one that’s the same one for the commissioners,” Harris said. “And we also don’t have funds for court challenges.”

Harris said earlier this week that five out of six new infections in the area are attributable to the delta variant, with the new strain increasing from 5% of cases to over 80% in just three months.

Like Harris, Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel has also expressed concerns about SEA 5. He said the “spirit of the law” is to allow more local control, but that it also takes power away from public health professionals.

“In areas that may not have that same level of cooperation that we’re fortunate enough to have in Clark County, it does create some very difficult situations and potentially dangerous situations,” he said. “So I do think some alteration to that would probably be helpful as we navigate through these things.”

Indiana Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box defended the state’s decision to not implement any statewide mandates last week. She said it’s important for local governments to make those decisions.

The moving average of new daily COVID-19 cases in Indiana is now 1,441, more than six times higher than it was a month ago. Clark and Floyd counties combined moving average for daily cases is 10 times higher than it was a month ago, increasing to 60.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.