Mask complaints, enforcement ramping up in some Indiana counties

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JOHNSON COUNTY, Ind. — Some local health departments are taking a more aggressive approach to responding to complaints they receive about mask mandate violations.

Since Indiana’s statewide mask mandate took effect in July as part of the state’s effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Johnson County Health officials have received roughly 400 complaints about mask violations. Those complaints have increased since new county-by-county restrictions took effect on November 16.

“We see most of our violators are the big box stores where you’ll walk in and there’ll be 25, 30, 45 people that don’t have mask on,” said Johnson County Health Director, Betsy Swearingen. “We’ve asked them to set a table up and ask those customers as they’re walking in, that aren’t wearing a mask, to put one on.”

The Marion County Public Health Department (MCPHD) also reports more complaints within the last week.

“MCPHD did see an increase in calls earlier last week after the revised public health order for Marion County (and the executive order from Gov. Holcomb) went into effect on Nov. 16,” said spokesperson Curt Brantingham.  

Swearingen says her department is now making a more aggressive response to such complaints. 

Before the county was classified as code “Orange” on the statewide map, a mask complaint resulted in a phone call for a conversation with a business owner or manager. Now, Johnson County Health Department workers are skipping the phone call and moving right to an in-person visit and inspection.

“You can disregard a phone call, but when you’re looking at a public health official in the eye and they’re telling you that you need to adhere to this mask mandate, I think it puts a little bit more teeth in it.”

The first in-person visit is considered a warning. The next complaint will result in a fine, anywhere between $50 and $500, depending on the severity of the violation. After that, more long-term sanctions can be imposed.

“If it’s a food facility and we can hold their license, we will hold their food license,” Swearingen said.

A suspended license could be reinstated after a business demonstrates mask requirements being followed and repeated complaints about the business stop, Swearingen said.

While mask requirements in big stores are intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, they can also lead to uncomfortable and possibly tense moments for store employees.

Kroger spokesperson, Eric Halvorson, said Kroger employees and store leaders are trained to encourage customers to wear masks and provide masks for shoppers who need them. However, store employees are not instructed to remove a shopper who refuses to wear a mask. That’s partially due to concerns about employee safety.

“We are trying to balance the interests of everyone involved,” Halvorson said.

Other big stores like Walmart and Lowe’s have similar policies, citing employee safety as the main concern.  

Meantime, local health departments appear poised to continue ramping up the response to mask violations complaints. In Hendricks County, health department workers plan to continue making a phone call to a business after a first mask complaint.  

“However, with the second phone call an in-person visit will be conducted,” said Hendricks County Environmental Health Director, Krista Click. “Any time an inspection is conducted and employees are observed not wearing masks, a violation will be noted. We are being more active with our follow-up inspections so that enforcement may be taken more quickly.”

Swearingen says more the aggressive response is an effort to keep her county from going from Orange to Red.

“We’ve begged, we’ve pleaded, we’ve asked, we’ve relied on people doing the right thing and being conscientious and nobody wants to do that,” she said. “So, now it’s time to hit it where it hurts and that’s in the pocket book.”

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