SOUTHERN INDIANA — When Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel issued an order in November to limit restaurant capacity to 75%, he alerted local officials before announcing the mandate, which went beyond state regulations at the time.
It’s the only point to date when Yazel approved an order that went beyond state guidance, and he said it was in response to the closure of restaurants just across the Ohio River in Louisville. The reduced capacity was an attempt at keeping Clark County residents safe, as Indiana’s more lax regulations were expected to bring Kentucky customers to Southern Indiana for dining.
“That one kind of forced our hands a little bit,” Yazel said.
But after the Indiana legislature overrode Gov. Eric Holcomb’s veto of Senate Bill 5 on Monday, such orders as the one Yazel issued last year will have to be approved by local officials.
Yazel said Tuesday that Clark County’s health board, commissioners and council have worked well together during the pandemic, so he’s not concerned about the local impact of the bill as it pertains to oversight.
“We work well together,” Yazel said. “We’re fortunate to have excellent elected officials. I don’t think it will affect our workflow by any means.”
Others believe the legislation is a threat to public safety.
Under SB 5, county commissioners would have to approve any local order during a public health emergency that’s more stringent than state executive mandates. It also establishes an appeals process for residents to challenge enforcement actions levied by health boards, departments or officers.
“I think it’s terrible, but it doesn’t surprise me that the state of Indiana has been making these decisions,” said New Albany City Councilman Pat McLaughlin, a Democrat.
“This is going to put our public health in jeopardy. I, myself, do not trust some of the people who would make these decisions.”
Floyd County experienced its own debate last year. Though commissioners didn’t accuse Floyd County Health Officer Dr. Tom Harris of overstepping his power during the pandemic, two members of the body initially voted not to renew his appointment before ultimately changing their minds.
Though it expired when the state mandate was lifted, Harris had extended the mask requirement for Floyd County and issued other orders related to restaurant capacity that went beyond executive decisions.
Many rallied to support Harris, and some New Albany council members suggested that the city should explore creating its own health department. Under SB 5, a mayor would have the authority to approve or deny a local order if a health department is operated by a municipality.
Yazel said he agrees with the spirit of the legislation because checks and balances are a part of government. But he added the appeals portion of the bill gives him some concern, because it could delay enforcement action during a pandemic.
“That’s a little worrisome if someone has an unsafe situation where we need to intervene right now,” he said.
Yazel added that someone with a medical background should be advised before a legislative body decides whether or not to allow an order to stand.
Though the situation has improved, McLaughlin said there’s no guarantee that the pandemic will end soon, as he pointed to rising numbers of cases and deaths in India after a new variant of COVID-19 was discovered.
He accused the state representatives and senators who voted in favor of the bill, and to override Holcomb’s veto, of putting profits over health.
“I don’t know if it’s the quality of the dollar in business rather than human life and safety that drives these decisions, but obviously people in the Statehouse who voted this way have not taken the lesson into consideration in terms of what we’re going through,” McLaughlin said.
He emphasized that medical experts should be making decisions about health emergencies, not politicians.
In Clark County, Yazel said most residents and business owners have at the least been respectful, if not outright supportive, of restrictions levied during the pandemic.
“I’m sure there’s some that have been frustrated with our decisions, and I get it. You’re talking about getting into someone’s pockets and getting into their livelihood,” he said.
Clark County Commissioners President Jack Coffman concurred with Yazel about the relationship between local officials and the health department.
“Fortunately here in Clark County, we have such a good relationship with our health board and health officer, I don’t see it as a major impediment,” Coffman said of SB 5. “We’ve never had any real type of controversy or any type of conflict with our health officer.”