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Three Republican state senators have authored legislation that would limit the authority of local health officers, a bill introduced in response to actions taken during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Health officers around the state have implemented numerous restrictions to mitigate spread of the deadly virus since it first surfaced in early 2020. Their actions followed orders by Gov. Eric Holcomb, whose mandates also face legislative scrutiny in the Indiana General Assembly.

Many Hoosiers have felt the unintended consequences of those orders, especially business owners and service industries, who have seen profits plummet and customers stay away.

That led to accusations of overreach as some questioned the authority of those who, as the pandemic emerged, sought to impede its spread.

Enter Senate Bill 48, authored by Sens. James Tomes (District 49), Blake Doriot (District 12) and Ron Alting, (District 22).

A key provision of the bill would limit to 14 days the time in which a mandate issued by a local health officer or health board can be in effect, unless a county or city official approves extending it. The same time restriction would apply to the governor.

The legislation also sets maximum fines a local health department can assess for violations of local orders pertaining to control of communicable diseases.

Specific to COVID-19, failure to wear face coverings or social distance could draw a maximum fine of $250. Other violations could draw a maximum fine of $500 for a first offense, $1,000 for a second, and $1,500 for third and subsequent violations.

The legislation, which further outlines complaint, inspection and enforcement guidelines related to health mandates, has been referred to the Committee on Health and Provider Services. That committee will gather input and engage in important discussions about emergency health orders and the authority to issue them.

A global pandemic is new to us, and establishing response protocols based on our shared experience has merit.

We would caution, though, that adding a political layer to the decision-making process could slow the enacting of life-saving measures. Health officers have medical training that can be brought to bear when making critical decisions that affect the well-being of our communities. Most elected officials aren’t medically trained and in the absence of that training should be asking the questions, not providing the answers.

Hoosiers are better off when health officers have the latitude they need to call the shots.

The News and Tribune

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