The need for masks when in public and interacting with others has been an ongoing controversy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced March 23 he will end the statewide mask mandate on April 6, which means Hoosiers can now decide for themselves whether they want to wear a mask in public spaces.
Thankfully, Monroe County has already announced it will maintain their current mask mandate and social distancing policies past April 6.
“It is time to stay the course and monitor very carefully what is happening, and I really appreciate our health experts and leaders doing just that,” Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton said in a press conference March 26.
There are some exceptions to the end of the state mandate, such as the requirement for masks in all state buildings, COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites and K-12 schools for the rest of the 2020-21 school year. The mandate’s end means mask and maximum capacity requirements are now in the hands of local officials.
Businesses and restaurants throughout Indiana can decide what requirements they want to maintain. Many retailers and local businesses have already announced they will maintain social distancing and mask requirements, as they have in the past, in response to Holcomb’s address.
The end of the statewide mask mandate leaves Indiana vulnerable to increased COVID-19 transmission. Only 20.4% of adults over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated in Indiana as of March 30, and masks are an essential component to decreasing the spread of this disease.
Although Holcomb also announced everyone 16 years and older will be eligible for the vaccine beginning March 31, there’s no guarantee a critical number of people will be able to receive at least one dose of the vaccine before the mask mandate ends. While many people who are vaccinated will be more protected against the virus, there is still a large population of Hoosiers who rely on masks and social distancing to stay safe in public.
Indiana has no reason to repeal the mask mandate so soon, especially when a large share of Hoosiers will be fully vaccinated in a few months' time.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly said masks are the main defense against COVID-19. Masks have been an important tool for navigating the pandemic, and ending the requirement too soon could have dire consequences on Indiana’s case numbers and hospitalizations.
The number of positive cases in Indiana remains well below what we saw November through January. The daily average, however, is slowly beginning to rise. Near the beginning of March, the daily average sat at a low not seen since September — just less than 800. More recently, the average is approaching 900 cases.
Without a mask mandate in place, these numbers have the potential to significantly increase.
Just because cases have slowed recently does not mean they cannot begin to increase again. By basing the decision to end the mask mandate off of the extremely high numbers occurring during the winter, we neglect the fact we still see hundreds of cases everyday.
As the mask mandate moves to advisory throughout the state, Hoosiers have to rely on one another to be diligent and continue to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines. The mask mandate’s conclusion doesn’t mean the pandemic has ended and everyone is safe to go in public without proper protection.
Some may view the end of Indiana’s mask mandate as the pandemic’s conclusion, but this mindset will cause people to neglect the health and safety of themselves and others. It could lead to even more cases and deaths in Indiana.
Hopefully, the work and legislation of local officials, the distribution of the vaccine and the choices of local businesses and retailers will be enough to see us through to the end.
To best help mitigate this decision’s potential damage, Holcomb should reverse his decision and extend the mask mandate until more Hoosiers are vaccinated.
This story has been updated to include more recent COVID-19 vaccination data.
Aidan Kramer (she/her) is a freshman studying microbiology. She hopes to pursue a career in medicine after she graduates.