SOUTH BEND — On a day when St. Joseph County’s COVID-19 numbers again set new record highs, the South Bend Common Council on Monday unanimously supported a call from a group of health care providers, business and academic leaders to give county public health officials enforcement power to slow the virus’ spread.
On Tuesday, the county council will again consider an ordinance that would let the county health department fine businesses whose employees and customers are repeatedly found to be violating the health department’s order requiring masks to be worn in indoor public spaces where at least six feet of distancing can’t be maintained between people. The council for months has been tabling the bill, opposed by Republicans who make up three of the nine members, angering many in the community who say the mask order has no teeth without the threat of fines.
The South Bend Council passed its resolution, which is not binding on anyone, in support of an open letter to the community signed by members of the Medical Education Foundation, a citizen advisory board to the Indiana University School of Medicine — South Bend. The foundation’s top officers include Chairman Chris Murphy, 1st Source Bank president and CEO; Vice-chairman Thomas Cassady Jr., senior sales executive with insurance firm The Horton Group; and President Phil Newbold, retired CEO of Beacon Health System.
“We are at war,” Newbold told council members. “Quite frankly, in many countries around the world, we’re losing, and in this country, many communities are losing. They are losing the war to this terrible virus and it is hitting and affecting people of color, those with underlying conditions, and some of the most vulnerable citizens in our community.”
On Monday the county’s rolling 7-day average of new cases hit 236.7, more than double the 112.9-case average from two weeks ago. There were 2,675 active cases, meaning people who’ve tested positive over the past two weeks, up from 1,545 two weeks ago.
On Saturday there were 283 people hospitalized in the 7-county district that includes St. Joseph, another record high.
Of the 12,340 cases diagnosed in the county over the pandemic’s 34 weeks, 10% came over the past week, and 62 people died from the virus in October in St. Joseph County, the deadliest month yet.
The group’s open letter doesn’t specifically mention the ordinance before the county council but clearly alludes to it.
“As regional leadership of the government, business, education and not-for-profit sectors grapple with ways to contain the COVID virus, we strongly urge and support the science-based wearing of masks, social distancing, and regular hand washing,” the letter states. “We write this to ask for your help and support to not only practice these three activities on a regular basis, but that appropriate enforcement ordinances for those individuals who do not comply and legislation be passed quickly and soon.”
County Health Officer Dr. Robert Einterz and his deputy health officer, Dr. Mark Fox, had hoped the council would unanimously vote to suspend its rules and vote on the ordinance in August, but Republican Council Member Mark Root stopped that from happening. A vote at the September meeting couldn’t occur because the council lacked a quorum of at least six members to conduct business. Democratic members Mark Catanzarite and Joe Canarecci had said a month earlier that they would be out of town that night. It was unclear why Republican members Dick Pfeil and Mark Telloyan didn’t attend.
After about three hours of debate at the October meeting, the council voted 5-4 to table it again. Democrats Rafael Morton and Corey Noland joined the three Republicans, Root, Telloyan and Pfeil, in voting to table.
Newbold told the South Bend council that the Medical Education Foundation believes the safety measures are important not just to prevent more deaths and serious illnesses, but also to save the economy.
“We, of all things, have to avoid a shutdown,” Newbold said. “That is going to hurt some of the smallest, most vulnerable businesses in our community. That is the default position. What we can do proactively right now are these three items, and we should all get behind that, join hands, and make sure this community is not going to lose the battle against this virus.”
Several South Bend Common Council members spoke of their family members who have suffered from COVID-19. Common Council member Lori Hamann, a Marian High School teacher, said another economic shutdown also would do further academic harm to students if they are forced back into virtual-only learning.
“Many of these children, as well as the parents, feel that they have lost, easily, if not a full year, a half year of their education because it is just not an effective way to learn, online,” Hamann said. “The children that have been able to get back to face-to-face learning in the classroom would suffer greatly if we do not get a handle on the exploding cases that we are seeing in our city and in our county.”