A House bill would gut state and local emergency orders to fight the COVID pandemic.
Fort Wayne Republican Bob Morris’s bill would terminate any limits on business capacity or operating hours on May 1, and would prohibit state or local governments from imposing any new ones. Several cities, including Indianapolis, have set earlier closing times for bars or restaurants in a bid to limit the virus’s spread. And the state’s color-coded risk map, based on the number and rate of new cases, limits gatherings to 25 people in most of the state, with 17 counties allowed up to 50.
The bill would also ban the state from limiting elective surgeries at hospitals, a step Governor Holcomb has taken twice to make sure there’s enough space for COVID patients. Churches and private schools couldn’t be ordered to close, and churches couldn’t be ordered to mask up or practice social distancing. Religious services are already exempt from limits on gathering size.
Morris contends it’s an infringement of religious freedom to tell parishioners “what to wear or where they can stand.” And he argues for churches and businesses alike, it shouldn’t be the state’s job to tell them what to do — only to offer advice and let them decide for themselves.
Fort Wayne caterer Joseph Ceruti says he’s lost a million-and-a-half dollars in income to the pandemic, and had to furlough all but five of his 32 workers. He blames Governor Holcomb for what he calls “unbelievable government overreach and restrictions.”
Jeffersonville Democrat Rita Fleming, a retired ob/gyn, says religious freedom is irrelevant to public health precautions. She argues churchgoers’ right to be safe from public health risks is just as important, and says a mask requirement offers protection without infringing anyone’s rights. Morris responds he considers the value of masks uncertain, despite a public health consensus that they reduce the risk of infection.
The House Commerce Committee, which Morris chairs, could vote on the bill next week. A procedural vote on the church exemption language passed 6-5, with two members absent.
The bill is one of several which would chip away at 10 months of pandemic restrictions. A move to end Holcomb’s emergency declaration is bottled up in committee. But bills to ban employers from requiring vaccinations and to require periodic legislative check-ins during a prolonged emergency have already received hearings, though no votes have been taken. And Senate Republicans say one of their top priorities is a bill to let businesses appeal health department shutdown orders to the county commissioners or council.
The virus has killed more than 9,000 Hoosiers, with another 2,000 currently hospitalized.