Central Indiana counties confirm ‘hundreds’ of mask mandate violations

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INDIANAPOLIS – The Marion County Public Health Department confirms it has received more than 900 complaints related to the public health order at restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

It also received about 200 additional complaints from other businesses between March and October.

CBS4 first asked about the amount of complaints filed in July. We were trying to find out how many complaints had been filed and how the health department was enforcing the mandate. After sending several emails, the county health department finally fulfilled a public records request in October.

“More than 600 Notices of Violations (NOVs) have been issued related to the public health order to retail food establishments (restaurants/bars/nightclubs),” a spokesperson wrote. “Most of these were brought into compliance in the given timeframe, upon re-inspection, or they are scheduled for rechecks, per our inspection protocol. Again, we do not separate out which violations are specifically for violating the face covering mandate and which are for capacity/social distancing.”

As of Oct. 28, the county had filed just six court cases against businesses who were in violation. The county was seeking a $1,000 fine from each location.

According to officials, the Indianapolis Speedrome violated capacity guidelines and social distancing rules. It entered into an agreed judgement and paid the fine before anyone appeared in court.

Marion County allowed Jack’s Barbershop to achieve compliance. Once it was found to be in compliance, the case was closed.

County health officials also filed a court case against McDonald’s at 7279 N. Keystone because of a mask violation. A spokesperson said the case is pending.

The Corner Bar at 5506 S. Meridian was cited for a mask violation and for having live entertainment, which was not allowed at the time of inspection.

Hardee’s at 5016 Harding Lane and the Speedway locations at 10010 Pendleton Pike and 7103 N. Keystone reportedly had mask violations as well.

Surrounding counties admit they, too, have had their fair share of complaints.

Hendricks County documented 148 complaints regarding the mask mandate and a lack of COVID-19 precautions. In the meantime, investigators mentioned about 52 other locations violated the order in some way on their food establishment inspection reports. The county issued two warning letters because they were reportedly offering buffets, which also violated the public health order.

The Hancock County Health Department said it has received dozens of complaints regarding Gov. Eric Holcomb’s mask mandate.

“Since March 1st, we have received 45 complaints regarding employees and customers at retail establishments and 52 complaints regarding restaurants. We have not issued any warnings or citations,” an environmental health specialist emailed.

CBS4 also spoke with a Tipton County environmental health specialist.

“I’ve sent eight mass emails, in which masks have been addressed, to our permitted businesses. Two have focused specifically on masks. I have spoken directly to seven businesses about mask complaints. I received one complaint via email, not naming a specific business, numerous (maybe a half dozen) similar phone calls, and many anecdotal complaints from people on the street. All were addressed,” he said.

Johnson County confirmed it, too, has documented hundreds of mask violation complaints. A spokesperson told CBS4 they have recorded at least 400. Complaints are typically logged into the health department system and then handed out to inspectors for education or enforcement. Those inspectors can handle a first offense with education, but any offense after that warrants a fine. Johnson County’s public health preparedness coordinator said they have issued a handful of fines.

Finally, Hamilton County sent a detailed report, citing several locations that reportedly had to pay hundred of dollars in fines. The director of environmental health told CBS4 it has recorded about 100 more complaints than this time period in 2019. About 198 violations were for failure to prevent a public health hazard, “a non-critical code section use to document improper or non-mask wearing by employees.” Around 32 violations were to cease operations for creating a public health hazard, with additional violations noted on repeat observations of non-mask wearing.

Hamilton County did not distribute civil penalties every time, but said inspectors used their judgment to do so.

“We do not wish to be punitive if it can be avoided with education and orders to comply,” Jason LeMaster emailed. “It is better for facilities to invest their money into fixing their problems rather than just paying a fine for non-compliance and the violation not being corrected.”

CBS4 spoke with Thomas Duszynski at the Fairbanks School of Public Health. After reviewing the numbers, he believes more and more people are not taking the pandemic and public health order seriously.

“We have been talking about this since April,” he pointed out. “This tells me we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Duszynski insisted that the best way for Hoosiers to protect themselves and others is to wear a face mask.

“Yes, being outside does reduce your risk of infection. Staying six feet reduces your risk of infection, but so does wearing a mask! Why not do all these things and we can get back to that sense of normal we all want? The faster we do this, the more we do this, the sooner we can return to that sense of normal,” he said.

CBS4 asked whether Duszynski was surprised at the lack of enforcement. He shook his head, admitting while he would love for public health to enforce the rules, there are funding and staffing level issues.

“Public health in Indiana has been underfunded for years,” he explained. “We just don’t have the capacity necessary to do this kind of response. Think about the tasks that local health departments are having to do right now. Not only are they helping manage contact tracing for all their cases in the county, but they still have to do those restaurant inspections. They still have to do the septic and well inspections. They still have to respond to all the other day to day things that public health does like vaccines and birth and death records, right? And then you put COVID on top of this. We’re exceeding our capacity.”

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