“I appreciate what the appointed local health officers across our state have done in the face of the pandemic, but it’s critically important we have elected officials making the final decisions in the communities they serve,” the statement said, in part. In a statement, Garten said the motion to override the governor’s veto means more oversight by local government officials to protect residents’ civil liberties. “When religious liberties are limited, family businesses are being closed and fines are being imposed on Hoosiers for simply living their lives, structural checks and balances need to be in place — SEA 5 is exactly that. I’m confident this policy will improve public accountability by giving elected officials greater oversight in these difficult decisions.”
For example, if a statewide order said restaurants and bars had to be limited to 75% capacity for COVID-19 safety, and a local health officer in an area with a higher case concentration wanted to limit that to 50% capacity, a restaurant owner could appeal that decision to, in most cases, the county commissioners. The language relates largely to actions taken by a health officer during a pandemic or epidemic and states that in cases where either the local restrictions are stricter than statewide ones or where there is no statewide emergency order in place, those affected by the restrictions can appeal the enforcement to an elected board or in court.
While supporters say the measure should provide more checks and balances, others say it’s dangerous to take authority away from health experts during a dire situation and that the appeals process is too long. Co-authored by Sen. Chris Garten (R-Charlestown), the bill was referred to the House in early February, referred back to the Senate with modifications in early April and passed April 28.
“Nor does it in any way interfere with a health officer’s day-to-day enforcement activities,” said Clere who has supported various legislation to help mitigate other public health crises such as HIV. “Rather it applies in the case of an epidemic or a pandemic.” Rep. Rita Fleming (D-Jeffersonville) said she felt the vote was disappointing, and that “right now during a pandemic is probably the worst time that we could be restricting public health officers’ need to act in an emergency,” adding that “the governor does not veto bills indiscriminately.” While there is some question as to the broadness of the language, Clere said his interpretation is that this would not apply to a health officer’s ability to act quickly in the case of an outbreak of a disease.
“My interest from the beginning was making it a balanced bill,” he said, adding that Garten “was very collaborative and engaged and I was glad to be able to work with him on the bill and get to where we ended up.” Rep. Ed Clere (R-New Albany), a House co-sponsor, worked closely with Garten and others to create the final version.
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