Indiana legislators nullified on Monday any local COVID-19 restrictions tougher than those issued statewide with their vote to override the governor’s veto of a bill giving local elected officials power over such public health orders issued during emergencies.
It is the second time in less than a month that the Republican-dominated Legislature has rejected GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb’s veto on measures limiting the broad authority that he and local health officials have used to impose restrictions around the state during the coronavirus pandemic.
The new law approved Monday requires elected county commissioners or city councils to vote on approving any local health orders that are more stringent than those issued by Holcomb in order for them to go back into effect. That would include mask mandates that were in place for cities including Indianapolis, South Bend, Elkhart and Bloomington since Holcomb rescinded the statewide mask order in early April.
The Senate voted 36-10 and the House 59-30 to easily achieve the simple majorities needed to override the veto issued last week by Holcomb and make the new law effective immediately.
Republican legislators say the proposal is meant to provide a “check and balance” protecting the rights of business owners following complaints about COVID-19 orders closing or limiting businesses over the past year.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said local officials have had plenty of time to anticipate the new step.
“To the extent they want to keep some policy in place that they would need to meet and approve, I think most of them are probably ready to do that or at least they should be at this point,” Bray said.
Holcomb said in his veto message that he didn’t want to jeopardize the flexibility of local health officials as work continues to vaccinate more people against COVID-19. Indiana has one of the country’s lowest vaccination rates against the disease that health officials say has killed more than 13,500 in the state and largely was to blame for an increase of at least 16% in statewide deaths during 2020 from the year before.
Holcomb’s coronavirus-related executive orders over the past year have allowed local officials to establish tougher regulations — an authority he frequently cited in defending his decisions lifting various statewide travel, crowd size and business restrictions.
“I would have hoped that such sweeping change could wait until we gathered all the relevant experts and stakeholders to strike the right balance regarding local health authority during emergencies and avoid discouraging laudable service in the field of public health,” Holcomb said in a statement after Monday’s votes.
The Indianapolis City-County Council was expected to vote Monday night on extending the city’s mask mandate and capacity limits on restaurants and bars, a council spokeswoman said. But county commissioners in northern Indiana’s Elkhart County have said they don’t intend to endorse the tougher rules ordered by the county health officer.
Legislative Republicans voted last month to override Holcomb’s veto of another bill giving themselves more authority to intervene during statewide emergencies declared by the governor. Holcomb has filed a lawsuit against the Legislature, arguing that new law violates the state constitution.
Democrats argued that Republicans were responding to a vocal minority complaining about actions taken to stem the coronavirus spread.
“This is politics, this is a Republican civil war and I reject that this is something we need to be down here doing today,” said Democratic Sen. Jean Breaux of Indianapolis.
Several medical and health organizations opposed the limits on county health orders, arguing against shifting authority away from public health professionals to local elected officials who largely don’t have such experience. Supporters of the new law say it doesn’t apply to orders issued against businesses or residents over matters such as health code violations.
The new law also gives local elected officials — rather than appointed local health boards — hiring authority over county health officers and creates a procedure allowing the public to appeal enforcement actions such as fines or an order to close a business to an elected county or city board.
Republican Sen. Mike Gaskill of Pendleton argued that no one in government should have unchecked authority.
“We’re not taking away local control but we’re involving more people in the decisions,” Gaskill said.