Mask violation complaints overwhelm, frustrate local health officials

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JOHNSON COUNTY, Ind. — Officials at several local health departments say they are overwhelmed and frustrated by the number of complaints about mask order violations they are receiving.

In the two weeks since Governor Holcomb’s statewide mask mandate went into effect, phone calls and emails at the Johnson County Health Department have been constant, according to director, Betsy Swearingen.

“We’re inundated with phone calls and overwhelmed at this point,” Swearingen said. “It’s tough to do our regular jobs and protect the public health of Johnson County.”

Swearingen said responding to mask violation complaints is taking time away from other public health programs like restaurant inspections, housing inspections.

“We’re trying to still provide well-rounded service with every one of our programs that we do on a daily basis, however, yeah they will suffer,” she said.

Health department officials in Shelby and Morgan Counties expresses similar concerns.

“Can’t keep up with what’s going on right now,” said Robert Lewis with the Shelby County Health Department. “Frustration is the word. We’re as frustrated as our constituents.”

“It’s highly frustrating,” said Steve Lyday with the Morgan County Health Department. “On top of trying to track this thing, we’ve now become the mask police.”

Swearingen said many calls are coming in from stores, restaurants and other businesses where customers or employees are not wearing masks or requiring patrons to wear masks.

Swearingen said she supports the order and the idea of wearing masks. However, she the hundreds of calls her department has received in the last two weeks are backing up, and some individual complaints are virtually impossible to follow up on after the fact.

“Those that are concerned and are worried, they call us,” Swearingen. “And we understand that and we’re here to help them in that regard. It’s just frustrating that people aren’t going what they’re supposed to be doing.”

The statewide mask order does not give counties authority to impose fines or other penalties for violations. Rather, the enforcement is intended to be based on education. That, according to Hamilton County Environmental Health Director Jason LeMaster, is partly why responding to complaints is putting an added strain on health department employees.

“Some of these are time consuming on the amount of followup that has to be done because it all relates around education,” LeMaster said.

“A lot of them are after the fact,” LeMaster continued. “Just like you see in the testing result numbers, we probably have a bigger surge on Mondays and Tuesdays of complaints from the weekend.”

Swearingen says her department is now cracking down on repeat violations at establishments.

“We have made the decision that if we visit a facility more than one time on a complaint for non-compliance with wearing the masks, that we will close the facility until they can guarantee that everyone is wearing the masks as they should be,” Swearingen said.

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