Ultimately, what the Franklin County Health Board moved ahead with at its July 21 meeting was swallowed up by a much more publicized announcement that came from Indianapolis the next day.

At his July 22 press briefing, Governor Eric Holcomb mandated the public usage of face coverings for the entire state of Indiana beginning July 27 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; the executive order effectively lessens what may have been some local resistance to a countywide mandate supported by all FCHD board members in attendance (or on phone hookups) last Tuesday.

County commission president Tom Linkel had joined the meeting by telephone and initiated the discussion on a mandate by saying he was opposed, feeling not every local resident would be acceptable to a mask requirement. He agreed it made sense to wear one in a crowd of at least two people when a proper distance of six feet can't be maintained. In another example, he said it shouldn't apply to someone riding a bicycle down the street.
There was some back-and-forth between Linkel and Dr. Darrell Brimhall, attending his first board meeting since his appointment as public health officer in February. The physician adamantly explained his support for a mandate.

“I'm not saying we have to get down to a rate of zero, but what kind of normalcy do you want to go back to?” he asked. “You see cities in Europe making masks mandatory, and as a rule, they're going back to normal life. Yes, it sucks wearing these very uncomfortable things, but you're basing this on hurting people's feelings and kickbacks, rather than on science.”

The run-up to the discussion included a spiking rate of infection within the county, as county nurse and department supervisor Angie Ruther laid out earlier in the meeting.

She confirmed there had been 27 new cases of the virus locally since July 1, and 18 in just the past eight days; that was the biggest increase since April. Of the recent positives, two were listed as critical and another was hospitalized; a child of five years had tested positive. According to the Indiana State Department of Health, total positive Franklin County cases since the start of the pandemic reached 175 on July 27.

Board member Jennifer Profitt, who would later make the motion toward implementation of a local mandate, was on speaker phone and fully supported the health officer's stance.

“As a scientist, all the research-based evidence says it is consistently the best means of not only protecting ourselves but also protecting our community and ensuring we can have economic success returning in a more vibrant fashion,” she said.

“The word I've heard most recently is agenda, but the only agenda I have as a health board member is to ensure the safety of those who live in this county,” she added. “We don't have enough (antibodies, antivirals, etc.) to impede the course of the disease, but we have enough face masks of all things, so my goodness, why not?”

Jessie Olvera, new public health coordinator, stated that the directive coming from the governor's office would be ideal in that it would bring the entire state in line. 

“It's no different than having a law that you need a license to drive a vehicle,” he said. “Not everyone on the road has a license but the law exists. Everyone knows the law and it is enforceable.”

Member Kimberly Neace took the devil's advocate role, asking the purpose for a mask when walking down a street alone or with someone who is in your common “bubble.”

“It's just getting really, really old and this stuff is so basic … like brushing your teeth basic,” Brimhall later remarked. “Yet we want to fight about it. People who are making decisions really don't have an accurate assessment of the evidence, so what is the point of having experts?”

Linkel later asked the doctor about herd immunity, which is resistance to the spread of disease based on pre-existing immunity of a high proportion of individuals as a result of previous infection or vaccination. 

Brimhall said the typical rate of infection is 10-15 times higher than the confirmed number of cases and herd immunity could take over eventually, but that “how long it will last, we don't know.”

The board unanimously moved ahead to express its intentionality for a county mandate requiring masks to be worn in public by all residents or tourists in accordance with Indiana Statute 16-20-1-21. The law essentially states that each local health board has the responsibility and authority to take any action by statute or rule of the state department to control communicable diseases.  

The ensuing discussion focused on expressing precise language as to the proposed mandate, as well as addressing all legalities with board attorney Gene Stewart – who was not present at the meeting – and taking the issue up with county governing bodies.

“The mask is like this vehicle or scapegoat to this classic frustration that's out there now because the world's screwed up,” added Brimhall. “Places that do this will have better, but not perfect, outcomes.”

He emphasized he didn't like this, as a parent himself, and literally wished his kids could just safely return to school.

The board is next scheduled to meet Oct. 20.

In other news:
There were several introductions in addition to Brimhall. Olvera was hired as local public health coordinator in April, followed by Deb Tibbetts (registered nurse) and Curt Cox (sanitarian) being hired in June. Joe Meier, former sanitarian, joined the board last month, as did Neace. They join Becky Kolb, Brenda Williams, Profitt, president Patsy Weileman and Joy Bishop.

A letter from Weileman was sent to county council in June, recommending a raise for Ruther – from $43,051 to $47, 804 – due to an increase in responsibilities and other factors. Council will address the request at August budget hearings.

Ruther's nurse report included a recap of the latest reopening plan for FC schools, which features a staggered start, sanitizing stations for students, faculty and other employees, and seating guidelines for buses and classrooms. Teachers will be trained on the new plan prior to opening. No assemblies or field trips will take place. 

In response to a question from Meier, sanitarian David Fehlinger said he tells restaurant, bar and mini-mart employees to wear masks and, as far as he knew, they all know they should. Emergency Management Director Amy Lindsey asked if employees knew it was a misdemeanor and possible fine to violate an executive order from the governor.

 “There's not a perfect answer, really,” said Fehlinger. “I came across someone with claustrophobic feelings. I told her if she needed to step outside for air, to do it. People can't get enough oxygen sometimes, especially in hot kitchens.”