April 6, 2021

House-Approved Bill Would Restrict Local Health Officials During Emergency

Article origination IPBS-RJC
Under current law, local health officials can impose restrictions during a public emergency that go further than any state orders. - Justin Hicks/IPB News

Under current law, local health officials can impose restrictions during a public emergency that go further than any state orders.

Justin Hicks/IPB News

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted Indiana Republican lawmakers to change the way local health officials are allowed to do their jobs during a public emergency.

Right now, local health officials can impose restrictions that go further than any state orders, like counties keeping mask-wearing mandates in place after the statewide mandate has ended.

A bill, SB 5, approved by the House Tuesday would ban that. Instead, stricter regulations could only be passed by local elected leaders – county commissioners or city councils.

But Rep. Rita Fleming (D-Jeffersonville) raised the example of the rubella pandemic in the 1960s. Fleming, a retired physician, said most people - including county commissioners or city councilors - wouldn’t see widespread issues with that virus. But health officials knew it was devastating to unborn children. And it’s health officials, she said, who should be making the decisions.

“I think it’s more important to save babies than bar owners," Fleming said. "I think this is very dangerous.”

READ MORE: How Do I Follow Indiana's Legislative Session? Here's Your Guide To Demystify The Process

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Rep. Matt Lehman (R-Berne) said he trusts local elected officials.

“They make those decisions every day now: where to put a stop sign and where to – they deal with public safety now,” Lehman said.

The measure also lays out how business owners can appeal enforcement actions by local health officials during an emergency, such as fines or shut down orders. Those businesses can appeal their case to the local legislative body, which must decide whether to consider the appeal within 15 days. The local elected officials can also temporarily halt the enforcement action while the appeal is going on.

The bill passed 65-28 along party lines and now heads back to the Senate.

Contact reporter Brandon at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.

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