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'A little bit of science' and 'a little bit of art': Holcomb gives plan to reopen Indiana

Governor Eric Holcomb gives COVID-19 briefing on Friday, May 1, 2020. Indianapolis Star

If all goes according to Gov. Eric Holcomb's plan, Hoosiers can expect to light up their grills and mostly return to normal by the Fourth of July weekend.

Of course, that might be a big if. 

Between then and now, Holcomb said Friday, Indiana will take a phased approach to lifting restrictions enacted because of the coronavirus pandemic. Dates of each phase may change, depending in part on the spread of the virus and its effect on hospital systems during the next two months. 

And three counties with unique coronavirus challenges â€" Marion, Lake and Cass â€" will follow a slightly delayed timeline to begin.

But for most Indiana residents, it boils down to this: 

Retailers? They can open at half capacity Monday. (Or May 11 in Indianapolis.) 

Hair salons and barber shops? May 11, with restrictions. (Or May 18 in Indianapolis.)

Most restaurants? Half capacity on May 11. (Or May 18 in Indianapolis.) 

Religious services? May 8 everywhere, with no restrictions on gathering sizes. 

And the limit on other social gatherings, such as wedding ceremonies or Mother's Day parties, will be expanded Monday to a cap of 25 people, which is up from 10.

That cap would balloon to 100 people on May 24, under Holcomb's plans, and 250 people on June 14. The cap would disappear by Independence Day.

"We are ready to move ahead in a measured way," Holcomb said. "This roadmap is subject to change ... The more that is known about this disease every day may alter our course."

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Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks to the media and others present at the Indiana Statehouse during a press conference to give an update on COVID-19 and its impact on Indiana on Monday, March 16, 2020. (Photo: Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar)

While Indiana will see an immediate wave of openings over the next two weeks, many places will be required to wait several more weeks under the governor's plan.

Gyms, playgrounds, movie theaters and basketball courts will need to wait until at least May 24. Bars, night clubs and bowling alleys will wait until at least June 14.

Then, finally, comes July 4 â€" when restrictions could be lifted on just about everything else, including professional sporting events, festivals and the state fair. 

It is also during that final stage, Holcomb said, that decisions would be made about when and how to reopen K-12 schools.

Moving forward â€" but able to pause

Almost 19,000 Hoosiers have tested positive for the virus, and more than 1,000 deaths have been reported. Nationally, more than 1 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to data compiled by USA TODAY, with 63,000 dead.

The crisis also is hitting residents' bank accounts. Nearly 570,000 Hoosiers lost their jobs or experienced a reduction in hours because of the pandemic, according to federal labor data. More than 57,000 workers filed unemployment claims last week alone. 

The competing crises is forcing state leaders such as Holcomb to identify ways to reignite the economy while also not heaping gallons of gasoline onto a kindling public health fire.

In taking an approach that Holcomb described as methodical, the state will be in a position to begin helping Hoosiers' pocketbooks but still retain flexibility to hit pause if the coronavirus comes roaring back.

"Your well-being affects not just your health but also your ability to provide for yourself," Holcomb said. "It's finding that sweet spot. It's a little bit of science and it's a little bit of art." 

Some things will not change Monday. Holcomb wants office workers to continue working from home, if possible. Hoosiers are still encouraged to continue wearing face masks in public and to maintain social distancing.

Those who are 65 and older, or who have high-risk health conditions, are also urged to continue staying home as much as possible. Older residents have accounted for most of the state's coronavirus deaths. 

While the governor prepared to speak, about 300 people stood outside the Indiana Statehouse to protest his prior stay-at-home order. Holcomb's new announcement was met with jeers and boos.

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Duncan Lemp, 28, of Grant County, said he favored opening the economy completely now.

"Hoosiers are smart. Don’t treat us like we’re stupid," he said. "We already know social distancing. Trust the public. Give the people the choice to work. If they get sick, it’s on them." 

Before reopening the state, one condition sought by Holcomb included a comprehensive tracing system. State officials marked off that checkbox this week when they selected Maximus, a health and human services provider, to provide tracing services in the state.

About 500 employees will staff a call center that interviews people who have tested positive. The staff will then notify their close contacts, urging them to quarantine for two weeks.

The Holcomb administration also announced this week plans to expand the state's testing capabilities. Whereas the state reported fewer than 100,000 tests over the last two months, the new plans call for an additional 100,000 tests per month through a new partnership with OptumServe Health Services. Results are said to be available within 48 hours.

Combined with comprehensive tracing, health experts say, expanded testing can help prevent asymptomatic people from unwittingly spreading the virus while at church, at the grocery store or anywhere else in public.

Another part of Holcomb's calculus has been whether the state's health care system could safely absorb a surge in coronavirus patients. Indiana's hospital systems, so far, remain capable of accepting more COVID-19 patients. More than 40% of the state's critical care beds are available, Holcomb said Friday, as well as 80% of the state's ventilator supply. 

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And the number of Hoosiers hospitalized with the disease has dropped over the last two weeks, Holcomb said.

The positive data, Holcomb said, can be attributed to Indiana residents who were willing to adhere to sudden disruptions when the coronavirus began sweeping through the state.

"Our mission was clear: Slow the spread and flatten the curve in order to protect our health care system from surging," Holcomb said. "Your patience and discipline have helped keep the terrible toll from being even worse."

Special circumstances

In Indiana, most cases have been concentrated in Marion County, with 5,700 positive cases and more than 339 reported deaths, and Lake County, with 1,900 cases and 92 deaths. Cass County, meanwhile, has reported 1,200 cases following an outbreak at a Tysons Food pork production plant. 

Under Holcomb's orders, Marion and Lake counties will face a one-week delay on a phased reopening. Cass County's delay is two weeks. 

Where is the coronavirus in Indiana?See these maps

Holcomb, though, emphasized that local governments maintain the ability to create stronger restrictions.

Such is the case in Marion County, where a stay-at-home order will remain in effect through at least May 15. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Dr. Virginia Caine of the Marion County Public Health Department made that announcement this week. 

Responding to the governor's announcement on Friday, Hogsett released a statement thanking Holcomb and noting that more guidance will come from the mayor's office next week.

"In the coming days, Marion County public health leaders will analyze this phased approach to assess how it can be implemented in Indianapolis," Hogsett said. "It is my intention to provide additional guidance to residents and businesses next week as to how we can begin to work our way through these phases."

A disparate response will, of course, create the dissonance where two restaurants on opposite sides of the street will face different sets of restrictions. The same goes for retailers and personal services providers.

Put another way: A hair stylist in Fishers can get back to work more quickly than one who works on Mass Ave.

With so many dates and varying restrictions, the Holcomb administration launched a new website Friday that seeks to answer common questions. It's available at backontrack.in.gov.

Yet as Hoosiers prepare to enter the next phase, many questions remain. 

When can residents begin visiting their loved ones in nursing homes again? 

Will vulnerable workers lose their unemployment benefits if they decide against immediately returning to work? 

What will college look like for students walking onto campus this fall? 

And will Indiana K-12 schools return to normal for the next school year? 

Yet perhaps one question rises above the rest of them.

Even as Holcomb allows for a phased move to normalcy in Indiana, what will that new normal look like? 

IndyStar reporter John Tuohy and USA TODAY contributed to this article. 

Contact IndyStar investigative reporter Ryan Martin at ryan.martin@indystar.com or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at 317-500-4897. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter: @ryanmartin.

Read or Share this story: https://www.indystar.com/story/news/health/2020/05/01/governor-eric-holcomb-announces-indiana-reopening-plan-coronavirus/3059343001/

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