EVANSVILLE — Mayor Lloyd Winnecke and the Vanderburgh County Commissioners' president said Friday they will not go forward with sweeping new restrictions on bars, restaurants and public gatherings recommended by the county health board.

Confronted by rising COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and death counts, the health board voted unanimously Thursday to recommend limiting social gatherings to 50 persons or fewer and limiting bars and restaurants to 50% capacity. Bars would have a mandated closing time of midnight.

But Winnecke, who participated in the health board's virtual meeting without comment, prefers his executive order mandating that organizers of any event of 125 people or more in the city must seek approval from the Vanderburgh County Health Department. The current number is 500 or more. Winnecke's order lowering it to 125 goes into effect Monday.

"To change the order before it even takes effect, I think would create great confusion," the mayor said.

"We simply thought that 500 was way too many, given our state of numbers," Winnecke said.

Winnecke said the Vanderburgh County Health Board is well-intentioned, but his executive order "came as a result of input from the two (local) hospitals and the (Vanderburgh County) health department." Those entities believe the 125-person threshold is manageable for contact tracers if necessary, he said.

In addition, Winnecke said, his order was received favorably by Dr. Kristina Box, Indiana state health commissioner, when she met in Evansville with him and other local officials last week.

Box was in Evansville to deliver an Indiana State Department of Health report about the spread of COVID-19 through the region. Winnecke announced his executive order the next day. He cited the rising spread of COVID-19 cases at local public events.

"I think (Vanderburgh County Health Board members) are very well-intentioned," Winnecke said Friday. "The fact of the matter is, right now there’s not data to support what they wanted to do."

Meeting virtually late Thursday afternoon, the health board relied heavily on data gleaned from the ISDH report chronicling the spread of COVID-19 in the 12-county District 10.

But the state agency has not provided data by county. District 10 comprises the southwestern quadrant of Indiana stretching from Crawford County in the east to Posey County in the west. Vanderburgh and Warrick counties are its most populous counties.

The health board's recommended new restrictions include:

• Social gatherings would be limited to 50 persons or fewer, without exception;
• Indoor school sports activities would be limited to no more than 50 persons.
• Bars would be limited to 50% capacity with a mandated closing time of midnight.
• Restaurants would be limited to 50% capacity.

The board will send a letter to all health departments in the 12-county District 10 urging them to strongly consider following the same recommendations.

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The health board's recommendations also go to the Vanderburgh County Board of Commissioners, county government's three-member executive governing body. State law allowed the health board to issue an order enacting the new limitations unilaterally, but it did not do so.

Commissioner Jeff Hatfield, president of the board of commissioners, said he will not advance the health board's recommendations, either. Areas outside the city continue to operate under “Stage 5” of the state's reopening plan. That allows retail stores, restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses to operate at full capacity.

"Restricting the commerce, restricting businesses — we've done that," Hatfield said Friday. "And although people might make the case that it helped, it sure did put a lot of people out of work.

"I just want people to wear a mask. I want them to stay away from crowds. I think people know what they need to do. I don't necessarily believe that they need me to force them to do something they already know they need to do."

Winnecke said his executive order will be enforced in the city by the Evansville Police Department.

"If someone calls and says, 'Hey, this reception at this events center is going on,' if they call 911, the police will come," the mayor said. "They'll ask the event organizer to show their approval form from the county health department."

If there is no approval form, Winnecke said, the police will ask the event organizers to leave.

If someone wants to fight, the city has enforcement weapons.

"Fines and citations are permitted by the City Code and the Indiana Code," city attorney Marco DeLucio said by email Friday.

But DeLucio stressed that fines are a last resort.

"It is our belief that most crowds will disburse when requested by EPD," the attorney wrote. "As such, we anticipate there will be no fines or citations."

Winnecke said the Vanderburgh County Health Board "acted with the best of intentions."

"I totally understand it, but at the end of the day, I'm on a four-night-a-week call with the hospitals and the health department," the mayor said. "That doesn't include multiple sidebar phone calls, text messages, whatever, between those same people during the course of the week.

"So it's not like we're not getting feedback."

Ascension St. Vincent Evansville doctor cites durability, danger of COVID-19

Dr. Roger Johnson, a critical care physician with Ascension St. Vincent Evansville, gave the health board a lengthy presentation before its vote Thursday. Johnson cited District 10's "doubling time," among a raft of other statistics, to impress upon board members the durability and danger COVID-19 poses.

The numbers were meant to make an impression — with the caveat that ISDH has not broken them down by county.

"If we keep going at the rate we're going now, in 44 days we'll have twice the number of cases (in District 10), or just under 25,000 COVID-19 cases," Johnson said.

Vanderburgh County has had rough sledding in the past few days.

The county reported two new additional deaths related to COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the total of new deaths in the last four days to six, according to the ISDH statewide dashboard of cases. The new deaths brought Vanderburgh County's total of coronavirus-related deaths to 48.

Vanderburgh County's one-day COVID-19 case totals hovered around or near triple digits for more than a week recently, according to ISDH's statewide dashboard of cases. Vanderburgh County has seen a total of 5,225 cases since the first case emerged on March 19.

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As hospitalizations, deaths increase, Indiana remains in 'Stage 5'

Even as Indiana’s cases, hospitalizations and death counts grow, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the state would remain in “Stage 5” of its reopening plan for at least another month. That allows retail stores, restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses to operate at full capacity. Stage 5 contains no size limitations on social gatherings.

Indiana's mask mandate would also be extended.

In his weekly coronavirus update Wednesday, Holcomb exhorted Indiana residents to do what it takes to halt viral spread — reiterating they need to wear masks, wash their hands and watch how close they come to others.

“It’s our behavior, our actions that need to be addressed," said Holcomb, who wore a mask throughout the briefing. “We can only control what we can control.”

Contact tracing: Spread happens when people let guard down

Contact tracing shows that much of the spread happens when people let their guard down and attend events with family members, Holcomb said. Other states that limit the size of public gatherings also are seeing increasing case numbers, which Holcomb said suggests setting such limits by itself will not help.

Backtracking on the state’s reopening plan doesn't make sense either, Holcomb said.

In March, Indiana and other states ground to a halt as schools and workplaces closed. It gave the state time to improve its supply chains and ensure hospitals had sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) to treat a surge of patients with a highly infectious disease, Holcomb said.

More:
Gov. Holcomb says Indiana will stay at Stage 5 of reopening plan

But it came at a cost, he said. Now, Holcomb said, state residents can do what they need to do – even attend a major league sporting event – as long as they do it responsibly.

“When we had to hunker down, that was for the very reason to get our footing,” the governor said.

It's different now, Holcomb said.

"The shutting down approach is missing the point," he said. "We can bend it (the curve) down just like we’ve bent it up."

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