Indiana lawmakers debating public health, personal freedom amid COVID-19 pandemic

In the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 9,000 in Indiana, lawmakers face contention over emergency health orders, school and business closures, vaccine requirements and other protocols spurred by COVID-19.

Posted: Jan 24, 2021 11:55 AM

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — As Indiana’s Republican-dominated Legislature returned to session, nearly a dozen bills drafted by GOP legislators have sparked debate in the Statehouse over where to draw the line between public health and personal freedom.

In the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 9,000 in Indiana, lawmakers face contention over emergency health orders, school and business closures, vaccine requirements and other protocols spurred by COVID-19.

In question is whether such precautions are necessary to stem the spread of the virus or infringements on rights.

“There’s a majority of the House and Senate in Indiana that like personal freedom and personal choice,” said Republican Sen. Dennis Kruse, who has authored or co-authored three bills. “I don’t think that government should be in charge of health care, or intervening in health care in our lives, for the most part.”

One measure up for consideration, introduced by Kruse, would prohibit Indiana employers from requiring workers to get immunizations against COVID-19 or any other disease.

Workers could decline vaccinations for medical, religious or reasons of personal “conscience.” They would also be allowed to sue an employer that required immunizations as a condition of employment.

Many of those who support the bill said it’s necessary to protect personal freedom, with Kruse noting its intention “is to stop the trend of employers or government telling me what to do with my body.”

Leah Wilson, executive director of Stand for Health Freedom, a not-for-profit dedicated to protecting parental rights, said any vaccination mandate would be “immoral and unethical.”

People should be able to decide for themselves whether to get vaccinated, said Ashley Grogg, a nurse and founder of Hoosiers for Medical Liberty. The group — which advocates for legislation against employer-mandated vaccines — was one of several who worked with Kruse to draft the legislation.

“The Constitution says that the individual comes first, and I think everybody should be allowed to make an informed decision,” Grogg said. “You need to be able to understand what you’re signing up for, what the risks are, and what the true benefits are, and be able to say ‘no’ if you choose.”

But several health and business organizations, including the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, have spoken against the bill. They said it could make workplaces unsafe, including hospitals and nursing homes, where people work closely together, and people’s immunization systems are at risk.

“We know that we have a duty to provide a safe workplace for our employees,” said Mike Ripley, the chamber’s vice president for health care and employment law. Most employers are not going to mandate vaccinations, Ripley continued, but there are settings where it makes sense.

The Indiana Immunization Coalition is also “very concerned” about the bill’s implications on all vaccines, not just those specific to COVID-19, said Patrick Glew, the coalition’s operations coordinator.

“This would set a precedent for all vaccines, all around the state, setting us up for outbreaks, which are extremely costly,” Glew said. “If you do not have to get a vaccine for these as a hospital worker, as a doctor, as a nurse, as somebody else who works in healthcare, you’re not only making decisions for yourself, you’re making a decision for everybody else that you treat. You’re putting them at risk, which is horrible.”

Republican Sen. Jean Leising — who called herself “a big personal freedom person” — said that while she thought the COVID-19 vaccine should be voluntary, she’s doing “everything in (her) power” to encourage others to get inoculated.

“I think it should be a choice,” she said. “But I see myself as having a responsibility to educate people and promote this vaccine.”

Of greater concern to the southeastern Indiana senator, however, is how lawmakers will respond to the hardships of the pandemic on businesses.

In her mostly rural, southeastern Indiana district, small businesses “have been hit very hard by COVID-19,” with many required by state or local mandates to close for weeks or months, and some forced to close permanently.

Many of her constituents felt those restrictions were “overboard,” Leising said, and business owners have been left with “too little” recourse.

Those frustrations are what Leising said prompted 35 GOP senators, herself included, to sponsor the senate bill, which would establish a process for business owners to appeal local health orders or enforcement actions.

Other measures would further provide civil immunity to businesses whose workers or consumers get sick or die from the virus.

“It should be a personal choice how much people expose themselves, whether at restaurants, stores, the dry cleaners,” Leising said. “And with more immunity and a clearer process to push back on local (health) orders, I think businesses might not feel so afraid to stay open.”

Up for debate, too, is whether to roll back the governor’s authority to issue emergency restrictions.

Several proposals aim to amend Indiana law that allows the governor to declare a public emergency – like the health emergency issued by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb in March to stem coronavirus spread – for 30 days.

Currently, there’s no limit on how many times an order can be renewed.

Holcomb’s order, which he has used to issue the statewide mask mandate and order the closure of businesses deemed nonessential during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic last spring, has been renewed nearly a dozen times.

One bill, authored by House majority leader Rep. Matt Lehman, would limit state of emergency orders to 30 days.

To renew the order, the governor would have to call a special session and get approval from lawmakers.

“As a legislator I think we should have been more engaged in the process, figuring out how to respond to this pandemic, and certainly more involved in how some of the money Indiana got from the federal government was spent,” Leising said. “We want to make sure that’s the case moving forward.”

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 941120

Reported Deaths: 15315
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1282511983
Lake633041097
Allen53609758
Hamilton43827447
St. Joseph41906590
Elkhart33545490
Vanderburgh30383448
Tippecanoe26820249
Johnson23609417
Hendricks22250341
Porter21737346
Clark17409229
Madison17366384
Vigo16108281
Monroe14466191
LaPorte14311239
Delaware14070221
Howard13865272
Kosciusko11418135
Hancock10841165
Warrick10674177
Bartholomew10542168
Floyd10430205
Wayne9959226
Grant9130204
Morgan8865160
Boone8389111
Dubois7710123
Dearborn762289
Henry7608130
Noble7413101
Marshall7362128
Cass7176117
Lawrence6957153
Shelby6584111
Jackson656785
Gibson6156107
Harrison603786
Huntington600195
Montgomery5805105
DeKalb574291
Knox5494104
Miami542488
Putnam536768
Clinton533665
Whitley524953
Steuben497268
Wabash483592
Jasper479160
Jefferson470092
Ripley454277
Adams444068
Daviess4169108
Scott405865
White391857
Clay390857
Greene388392
Decatur385296
Wells384983
Fayette374278
Posey359941
Jennings353156
Washington332047
LaGrange321375
Spencer317835
Fountain316555
Randolph312888
Sullivan307449
Owen283863
Starke280064
Fulton277553
Orange275859
Jay254837
Perry251652
Carroll243729
Franklin239338
Rush234130
Vermillion233250
Parke219820
Tipton209655
Pike207639
Blackford168334
Pulaski163551
Crawford146018
Newton144345
Benton142516
Brown135346
Martin128217
Switzerland125810
Warren114616
Union96911
Ohio79711
Unassigned0479

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1365800

Reported Deaths: 21596
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1522221560
Cuyahoga1344852327
Hamilton976051320
Montgomery670271141
Summit562091047
Lucas50900863
Butler47417655
Stark41580976
Lorain31567532
Warren30001331
Mahoning26963639
Clermont25628292
Lake24585417
Delaware22313145
Licking20487241
Fairfield20420221
Greene20309272
Trumbull19866509
Medina19796287
Clark17879328
Richland16314234
Portage16130229
Wood15681208
Allen14115256
Miami13786253
Muskingum12641152
Wayne11946238
Columbiana11708241
Tuscarawas10953269
Marion10725148
Pickaway10465129
Scioto10324127
Erie9747171
Ross9436176
Lawrence8755125
Hancock8458141
Ashtabula8317185
Geauga8173156
Belmont8140187
Jefferson7527172
Huron7423128
Union731851
Washington7183120
Athens697165
Sandusky6848134
Darke6756136
Knox6671122
Seneca6358137
Ashland5948113
Auglaize587188
Shelby5727101
Brown564171
Mercer557890
Defiance5483101
Madison543371
Crawford5425114
Highland541581
Fulton530683
Clinton525580
Logan512182
Preble4994110
Putnam4833106
Guernsey470364
Williams459282
Perry449852
Champaign445964
Ottawa436884
Jackson425362
Pike388843
Morrow383851
Fayette375853
Coshocton374766
Adams360675
Hardin359069
Gallia347356
Holmes3259108
Henry324668
Van Wert314670
Hocking301769
Wyandot280658
Carroll262652
Paulding242243
Meigs213942
Monroe189749
Noble169340
Morgan165829
Harrison157940
Vinton138118
Unassigned05
Fort Wayne
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Rain chances continue for at least the first half of Thursday before gradually tapering off.
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