Local Health Officials Hands Bound By State Lawmakers Reacting To COVID-19 Pandemic

Apr 22, 2021

Local health officials would have to get approval from their local legislative body to pass restrictions during a public emergency that are stricter than anything the state puts in place. (Justin Hicks/IPB News)

It’s going to be a lot harder for local health officials to create and enforce temporary restrictions during a public emergency under legislation approved Wednesday.

The bill, SB 5, says local health officials have to get approval from their local legislative body – county commissioners or city council – to pass emergency rules that are stricter than anything the state puts in place.

So, for instance, if a county health officer wants to impose a mask mandate now that Gov. Eric Holcomb ended the statewide order, their county commissioners must vote to do so.

The measure doesn’t affect regular health and safety rules that health officials enforce. And Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Ogden Dunes) said the logic of that seems backward.

"On a day-to-day basis, we trust them to make these decisions … but if there’s an emergency, all of a sudden we don’t trust them," Tallian said.

Sen. Chris Garten (R-Charlestown), the bill’s author, said times of emergency are exactly when elected officials need to be a "check and balance" for health officers.

“When there are implications that you can bankrupt multi-generational families and close down businesses – and not have a check and a balance in place – we’re simply saying that any appointed position in a democratic republic that has that much unparalleled power should get a second set of eyes to look at it,” Garten said.

The measure also allows local businesses to appeal an enforcement action by a health officer to their local legislative body. And those county commissioners or city councilors could halt the effect of that action – a business closure or fines, for instance – until the appeal is dealt with.

Rep. Rita Fleming (D-Jeffersonville), a retired physician, said health actions should be left to health experts, not local legislative officials.

"I know businesses have closed. I know people have lost jobs and that is tragic," Fleming said. "But an emergency, in particular, can be deadly ... they may be virtuous people, but they are not epidemiologists."

House and Senate lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to send the bill to the governor.

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