Health Southern Indiana

For eight months, Hoosiers had to wear masks in public.

That changed last Tuesday when Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb allowed his statewide mask mandate to expire. But several Southern Indiana restaurant owners plan to continue their own in-house mask requirements.

“I think we’ve got a little bit more time before that’s something I’m comfortable with with my staff, especially being in a restaurant where people have to take their masks off to dine and it’s boisterous,” said Dallas McGarity, owner of the Portage House in Jeffersonville.

Restaurant owners are allowed to implement such restrictions under Holcomb’s executive order, and McGarity isn’t the only one doing so. But it’s still a decision he expects to garner some criticism from local residents.

“It doesn’t really matter if we get a little more pushback from it, because that’s something that we’ve been dealing with the entire time,” he said. “It’s been going on ever since the mask mandate was even put out.”

That renewed pushback started almost immediately on social media. A private New Albany Facebook group with nearly 23,000 members has debated the topic for weeks.

Users have created lists of businesses that are still requiring masks. Some have said it’s a list of places they’ll avoid.

But that’s not stopping restaurateurs like Rachel Smallwood, owner and chef at Orange Clover Kitchen in Jeffersonville. She said her restaurant serves many older people and medical professionals.

That’s why Smallwood plans to keep the mask requirement. She’ll also continue to limit indoor seating, even though the state no longer has capacity restrictions.

“I think that it’s important, until we get vaccinated pretty much as a whole in the community, to make sure that we’re doing everything that everybody else expects us to,” she said. “They come in here and they can have a nice lunch. They can feel safe, and they know that their servers are wearing their masks.”

For Joe Phillips, who owns Pints & Union in New Albany, it’s a matter of safety for his employees, too. He takes issue with the exceptions in Holcomb’s latest order.

Even though masks are no longer required in bars and restaurants, they are required in state government buildings.

“People that [Holcomb] works with who come into his office have to wear a mask,” Phillips said. “I don’t know why we’re any different. I think it’s great that his staff, and then himself, will be safe. But I feel that my staff and myself should also be safe.”

Like McGarity, Phillips knows there’ll be some pushback. But he said he wants the public to know it’s not a decision he enjoys making, nor does he enjoy the conflict it creates for restaurant owners, who have already battled months of financial and staffing difficulties due to the pandemic.

“It’s not fun for any of us,” Phillips said. “It’s certainly not fun to fight with people about it, or argue with people about it, or to make this any kind of a political issue when it is clearly solely a health issue. We’ve made it this far. Why not just drive it home a little bit further?”

Health officers are the chief medical officials in Indiana counties. Under Holcomb’s order, they have the ability to implement local restrictions in their communities.

But that won’t happen in Clark and Floyd counties, at least not yet. Dr. Eric Yazel, Clark County’s health officer, said recent local COVID-19 numbers show the virus is spreading less quickly, so he’s willing to follow the governor’s lead for now. 

But Yazel said an uptick in cases could be on the way due to recent spring break trips. And he said an increase in severe cases and hospitalizations will prompt him to implement new restrictions.

“That’s something we watch very closely and is most telling,” he said. “If we see a positive trend in that direction, that tells us that we need to be more aggressive in a timely manner.”

In Indiana, there were only four days with more than 1,000 daily COVID-19 cases in all of March. But just in the week since the restrictions were lifted, there have been five days that each surpassed 1,000 new cases.

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