During one of series of meetings late last month, the Wabash County Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing Gov. Eric Holcomb’s continuation of Stage 4.5 of his Back on Track Indiana plan.
The council members called for Wabash County to move to Stage 5, which would mean a full reopening of the local economy without the restrictions put in place by the state to combat COVID-19.
“The Wabash County Council opposes any further continuation of Stage 4.5 of the Back on Track Indiana plan and the related economic restrictions for Wabash County. The Wabash County Council supports moving to Stage 5 of the Back on Track Indiana plan and fully reopening the economy as being in the best interests of Wabash County,” stated the resolution, passed Aug. 25.
Meanwhile, Wabash County attorney Steve Downs, who also serves the same role for Miami County, also recently drafted a similar resolution for Miami County commissioners, but it was met by stiff opposition from Miami County Health Officer Dr. Christi Redmon who told commissioners at their Tuesday meeting that she would not support it. Miami County Commissioner Fred Musselman said in that meeting that he had requested the resolution from Downs but would not be bringing it forward that day for a motion to consider adoption.
‘It is our duty to oppose this’
The idea of such a resolution was first presented at the July 20 Wabash County Council meeting when Matt Dillon, who represents District 3, read an open letter opposing such restrictions.
“State-mandated economic lockdown must end,” said Dillon.
In his remarks, Dillon specifically cited the economic impact of the tourism industry on the local economy. He said in 2019 Wabash County outpaced the state of Indiana for the percentage of median annual tourism growth and that nearly $56 million was generated by non-residents to our county’s economy. Of that, $1.4 million was captured by property taxes, representing roughly 8.5 percent of our general fund budget.
“This is a devastating amount,” said Dillon. “We have done a tremendous job of creating a community that attracts people. Unfortunately, the work that we have done is threatened by the continued moving of the goalposts for the reopening of our economy. The state of Indiana by its perpetuation of the economic lockdown threatens our tourism industry and our small business.”
Dillon mentioned several annual local events – such as Founder’s Day, Dam2Dam and the Chili Cookoff – which were canceled.
“I fear that the politicized nature of COVID-19 will continue to be used to further centralize power in the hands of the governor and his regulator agencies,” said Dillon. “It is our duty to oppose this. We’re staring down a huge impact in our economy. And that’s going to hurt us in local government.”
Wabash County attorney Mark Frantz said that even if they passed such a resolution, the language of Holcomb’s executive orders would render it ineffective.
“If we’re following the executive order, we can’t impose anything less restrictive,” said Frantz.
Councilmember Barbara Pearson, who represents District 2, said she supported Dillon’s sentiments.
“It keeps changing on a constant basis. Although I understand where the authority lies, if smaller communities and county council commissioners don’t start speaking up, government overreach is only going to intensify,” said Pearson. “We are not Indianapolis. We are doing very well.”
Chairman Kyle Bowman said he was also in favor of such a resolution.
Pearson said she had been in communication with state representatives from the area who were also in favor of curbing the governor’s authority to issue such decrees.
“Our state representatives stand where we stand. We have their full support,” said Pearson.
After the July 27 Wabash County Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Barry Eppley said the commissioners were in basic agreement with the council’s drafting of such a resolution.
“The consensus of the council was that we need to move toward opening the economy of Indiana,” said Eppley.
Eppley cited the relatively low number of cases and deaths from the virus locally as a reason to move forward.
“If conditions change, I think that might temper some of our views. We just want to see especially areas that are having less effect from the virus be allowed to more fully reopen,” said Eppley. “The commissioners are all in the reasonably same opinion that we would rather open than close.”
‘I understand their protest’
During his weekly televised press conference on July 29, Holcomb said he was sympathetic to the council’s concerns.
“I understand their protest. I understand their perspective,” he said. “I hope folks can understand where we’re coming from which is responding to this pandemic.”
Holcomb said that while the local caseloads in Wabash County might be low right now, that could change at a moment’s notice.
“What we’ve learned is the community spread can be at one level one day and turn very quickly the next. And it’s when you let your guard down, and you’re not vigilant that it can take a real turn,” he said.
Holcomb said he understood the economic impacts of the state’s restrictions, but that it was easier to play defense than an offense against the virus.
“We’re in rocky, shallow water now while we navigate through it. However, having said that, large gatherings without the recommended guidance that you’ve provided, we’ve provided. We know where that leads to. We’ve seen the movie. And that’s where by the time you get to hospitalization rates going like this it’s too late. Or by the time you get to the death rates spiking up, it’s too late. The community spread is already there. Then, you’ve got to ratchet down. So, what we’re trying to do is keep this at a manageable level and smartly, safely reopen,” he said.
Dr. Kristina Box, state health commissioner, said she agreed with Holcomb’s cautious approach.
“We would like to be able to continue to have the economy that we have, and continue to be open and continue to function in the way that we are. And so we need to use the things that we can such as our masks, such as the social distancing, decreasing the number of people in the restaurant or in a bar at a time. And those are all things that we know that can decrease the transmission of this virus,” said Box.
Holcomb said the state was trying to navigate through unprecedented times.
“When you talk about those cultural events, those festivals, those fairs, those charitable organizations that do so much good throughout the whole year off of one event, or two events, that draw big social gatherings that are built on that model, like moths to a flame. That’s just not the world that we live in right now. We’re looking at making sure we can divert or allocate resources to help communities like Wabash County, and 91 others for that matter, get through this storm,” he said.