Public health bill passage would immediately rescind existing COVID-19 restrictions in Indiana

UNDATED – The Indiana Public Health Association (IPHA) is warning Hoosier cities and counties to prepare for an instantaneous negative impact if Senate Bill 5 (SB 5) were to become law. Beginning immediately upon passage, any existing city or county COVID-19 policies more restrictive than those ordered by the Governor would be invalid and unenforceable.

The bill, which passed both chambers of the Indiana Legislature yesterday, will now be considered by Governor Eric Holcomb. Amongst a long list of damaging shifts to how public health is managed in the state, SB 5 prevents a local health department from implementing orders more restrictive than those issued by the Indiana Governor, unless such orders are approved by a county executive, or a combination of approval by a city legislative body or mayor. 

Dr. Jeremy P. Adler president of the Indiana State Association of County and City Health Officials

“Senate Bill 5 is a dangerous experiment Hoosiers would soon regret, beginning immediately with the annulment of local COVID-19 restrictions currently in place across the state,” said Dr. Jeremy P. Adler, president of the Indiana State Association of County and City Health Officials (INSACCHO) and health officer for the Tippecanoe County Health Department. “Enhanced public health restrictions exist in a number of Indiana’s most populous areas, including Marion County. These critically important measures would become null and void, requiring new approvals while endangering millions of people.” 

Earlier this month, INSACCHO and IPHA officials expressed unified opposition of SB 5, asking Governor Holcomb to veto the legislation while stating several concerns. Their primary apprehension is the transfer of major public health decisions to elected officials, most of whom lack the expertise needed to properly engage in unusually complex public health subject and regulatory matters.

Another major concern is shifting local health enforcement appeals processes from courts to city and county boards. This would require significant additional infrastructure on the city and county level and would also add another, cumbersome layer for public health officials to navigate.

Even worse, until an appeal is heard by a city or county board, the entity in question would have an opportunity to remain open, even if it is not following health orders. With a process lasting potentially weeks or months, this provision alone could lead to catastrophic disease within a community.

Some of the shifts in public policy will occur over a period of months, but that is not the case for expanded local COVID-19 restrictions, which would be canceled instantly upon passage.

Susan Jo Thomas, president of IPHA and executive director of Covering Kids & Families of Indiana

“Given the diversity of population density and different public health problems throughout our state, a one-size-fits-all strategy would do little to combat public health emergencies,” said Susan Jo Thomas, president of IPHA and executive director of Covering Kids & Families of Indiana. “Public health officials must have the ability to protect their communities by tailoring public health measures to the specific needs of the populations they serve. These decisions must be made quickly and often with little time for preparation. Experience and expertise are critical to making the best decisions for our communities.”

Indiana has seen a recent increase of both COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, led by cities and counties with larger population densities.