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St. Joseph Co. extends its mask order

July 2, 2020 GMT

SOUTH BEND — St. Joseph County public health officials have extended their mask order through Sept. 7, and Elkhart County officials have decided to implement a similar order.

Dr. Robert Einterz, St. Joseph County’s public health officer, signed the new order after consulting with representatives from the county’s three largest health systems, Beacon, Saint Joseph and South Bend Clinic.

“Given that there is no vaccine or medication available to prevent or treat COVID-19, measures such as hand hygiene, physical distancing and wearing face coverings are the most effective strategies to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets from infected persons to uninfected person,” the new order states.

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The mask order was due to expire Saturday. It requires face coverings for all people inside businesses and enclosed public spaces where social distancing of at least six feet can’t be maintained. Like the first order, it exempts people who can’t wear face coverings for health reasons but goes further by specifying examples of those conditions, including people with “respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive lung disease; severe anxiety; autism; cerebral palsy; two years of age or younger.”

The order also requires businesses to have hand sanitizer available at entrances for customers.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the main purpose of wearing a cloth face covering is not to protect oneself, but to avoid spreading the virus to others; people infected with the virus may not show symptoms for several days.

Health officials in St. Joseph County have credited the mask order with helping contain the county’s infection rate, which has remained lower than some nearby counties, including Elkhart. St. Joseph County has recorded more than 1,800 COVID-19 cases and 65 deaths.

The order cites state law that gives county health departments the power to act to control the spread of communicable diseases.

The county health department has documented nearly 70 violations of the order by businesses since it took effect May 4, according to a Tribune analysis of public records.

Elkhart County’s health officer, Dr. Lydia Mertz, citing a strain on local health care resources, announced a new mask order. Mertz did not place an end date on the order, saying on the department’s website that she will lift it when the “county’s positive case data, hospitalization census and ICU bed availability support lifting the order.”

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Face coverings will be required when 6-foot social distancing can’t be maintained indoors and in outdoor public areas. Also, all employees and customers in local businesses must wear masks.

The county, which has nearly 3,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 42 deaths, ranking third among Indiana’s 92 counties in total cases despite ranking sixth in population.

Elkhart County has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks but officials had previously resisted enacting a mask order.

Beacon Health, whose Elkhart General Hospital has the most COVID-19 patients hospitalized since the pandemic began, issued a statement praising the move.

“It’s the most effective thing that we can do to try to contain this coronavirus outbreak,” Dr. Michelle Bache, vice president of medical affairs at Elkhart General Hospital, said in a YouTube video released by the health system.

“Last week was a pretty tough week,” Bache said. “We were really struggling to try to find ways to take care of all the patients ... but I don’t want to be discouraged by that.”

Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder said he urges people to wear masks but remains skeptical about whether a mandate will change people’s behavior. He added that health care providers and state officials have attributed the county’s growing numbers to “community transmission” at parties and private social gatherings, to which the mask order doesn’t apply.

“It’s a frustrating issue,” Yoder said. “We’re trying to change public behavior. You can compare it to seat belt laws, smoking and all of that. It took years to do that, as well as legislative efforts. But it takes years and we don’t have years.”

On Monday, Elkhart County had a rolling 7-day positive test rate of about 12%, down from a peak of 24% in mid-April. For most of June, it has ranged from 15% to 20%, compared to the state’s current 5% rate and St. Joseph County’s 7% rate.

Yoder said several local elected officials and leaders of both cities’ hospitals don’t think the county is ready to move to Holcomb’s Stage 5 of reopening the economy on Saturday. They want to see the county’s positivity rate drop to 5% and stay there for seven consecutive days to be ready for Stage 5, which ends all restrictions on businesses.

“That’s the bigger story today, in my opinion, not the mask thing,” Yoder said. “We are waiting on what the (Stage 5) decision is on the state level before commissioners consider any action on that locally.”

Bache said she sees a “glimmer of hope” in the fact that the county’s one-day positivity rate for Thursday had fallen to about 8%, saying, “This is very good news if the trend continues.”