Officials speak on mask mandate, restrictions


JASPER — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Tuesday ages 16 and up would become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and the state would lift its mask mandate and capacity restrictions within the next two weeks.

Beginning April 6, the state will leave it up to local governments to decide whether to continue, modify or lift their COVID-19 restrictions and mask mandates. Holcomb announced this in an address to the state on the one-year anniversary of the statewide stay-at-home order implementation.

Shawn Werner, administrative director of the Dubois County Health Department, said the department will wait until the date is closer to announce what the county will decide to do, in case anything from the state or COVID-19 numbers change in the meantime. For now, the county will keep the same guidelines, he said.

Jasper Mayor Dean Vonderheide said the city will follow whatever guidelines the county health department decides to implement.

Ferdinand Town Council President Ken Sicard said the town will also work with the health department’s suggestions and will review any potential guideline changes the next time the town council meets but will likely continue the use of masks.

Huntingburg Mayor Steve Schwinghamer said the city will meet Thursday to discuss potential guideline changes but will also likely continue to encourage mask-wearing. If guidelines are loosened, he said, it will be up to residents to use their common sense and not go out in public if they think they might be sick.

"We're going to do whatever we can to keep people safe," Schwinghamer said.

Holcomb also announced that those aged 16 and up will be able to register for the vaccine beginning March 31.

Werner said the health department will gladly accept as many people as it can but that people may have to wait a while for an appointment.

“Our schedule is set pretty well through April,” he said. “Just because now you become eligible doesn’t mean you can just walk in here and get the shot today.”

Werner said the department will continue to aim for one mass vaccination clinic per month, alternating between first and second dose clinics. There is set to be another clinic for first doses in May, but the date hasn’t yet been finalized and the number of doses that will be provided is unknown, he said.

Throughout the pandemic, local officials throughout Dubois County have taken steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while attempting to keep businesses open and afloat.

In May 2020, leaders from Huntingburg, Ferdinand and Jasper created a plan called “Together We Thrive” to guide the reopening of the local economy. However, restaurants and large venues are still not operating at full capacity and local businesses are required to follow the state's mask mandate.

In early 2021, Vonderheide spoke with the Jasper Common Council about how the health department had been enforcing mask mandates in local businesses. With help from the state and local public feedback, the department had contacted several businesses that were reported to violate the mask mandate. Some businesses were issued cease-and-desist orders and required to submit plans on how they will ensure mask-wearing would be enforced.

The town of Ferdinand implemented an emergency order around a year ago that closed places such as the Town Hall Municipal Complex and the 18th Street Park to the general public. The order was extended at each monthly town council meeting until March 2021, when it was modified to reopen the park and Town Hall and eased some guidelines town employees were previously required to follow.

“Basically, we’re opening the town back up,” Sicard said at the council's March meeting.

Last week, the county’s COVID-19 advisory level turned blue and cases are generally continuing to decline. Werner said that although the numbers are promising, people still need to follow the county’s guidelines and use their own discretion to stay safe and prevent any further spikes in cases.

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