The Journal Gazette
Thursday, July 23, 2020 1:00 am

Local leaders back mask safety

Cases continue to climb in Allen, across the state

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

Social-distance. Wear a mask. Wash your hands.

The guidance isn't new. Doctors, public health experts and others have been saying for months those measures are effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19, which so far has killed 148 people in Allen County and nearly 150,000 across the U.S.

Nine new local deaths were announced Wednesday by the Allen County Department of Health.

But local government officials and leaders of some of the region's largest employers worry that many in the area aren't listening.

Just hours before Gov. Eric Holcomb announced that face coverings soon will be required in most situations in Indiana, executives from Do It Best Corp., Steel Dynamics Inc., BF Goodrich and General Motors' Allen County assembly plant gathered with Mayor Tom Henry and Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters at Citizens Square. There, they decried the actions of residents not adhering to recommendations designed to curb the spread of the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“Wearing a mask is not a political statement,” said Terry Redmile, BF Goodrich plant manager at the company's tire manufacturing operation in Woodburn. “It is a common-sense approach to protect the community.”

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 and deaths attributed to the disease continue to rise.

The local health department announced 17 new cases Wednesday, and the total count of cases in Allen County stands at 3,221.

Indiana officials reported 3,217 local cases, but because of differences in reporting and delays in test results, state and local numbers rarely match. The county ranks fourth among Indiana's 92 counties for the number of confirmed cases.

Marion County, with more than 13,000 confirmed cases, ranks first.

The Indiana State Department of Health reported 763 new cases, for a total of 58,673 statewide. Nearly 2,700 Hoosiers have died from COVID-19.

With those numbers in mind, Holcomb announced a statewide mask mandate that takes effect Monday.

Redmile and others, including Gary Duff, GM plant executive director, said simple preventive measures such as masks, social distancing and temperature and health screenings have ensured that thousands of workers inside their businesses have remained safe. They said it's a different story off the clock.

Workers have tested positive – neither Redmile nor Duff would say how many – but they said exposure to the coronavirus was traced to sources outside their businesses.

Redmile, Duff, Steel Dynamics President and CEO Mark Millett and Rich Lynch, Do It Best vice president for marketing, spoke at a news conference where they outlined steps they've taken to ensure workers' safety.

“Wearing masks is one of the most effective things each of us can do to personally protect public health and ensure that our economy can return to full strength,” Duff said in a statement distributed before the news conference. “It's why General Motors mandates masks as part of its multi-layered safety protocol and why we encourage our employees to do so at work and in public.”

Dr. Matthew Sutter, Allen County health commissioner, said he agreed and wrote in an email that such measures are “vital behaviors” necessary to beat back the rise in COVID-19 cases. But he said some residents have grown weary of weeks of having to maintain new routines.

“I think many people in our community have become complacent,” Sutter said. “At the beginning of a pandemic, people are willing to make big changes and sacrifices. As it drags on, it becomes harder and harder to sustain these behaviors, especially if no one in your household has been ill.”

Holcomb's mandate – Henry said before the governor spoke that he had discussed requiring masks in Fort Wayne – makes not wearing a mask a misdemeanor offense, but how or whether it will be enforced is unclear.

Sofia Rosales-Scatena, a Fort Wayne Police Department spokeswoman, said the issue has not been discussed.

“I don't see us doing any enforcement at this time,” she said in an email.

City spokesman John Perlich also said local officials have not yet discussed specifics.

“We'll be working through those details in preparation for the mandate beginning Monday,” he said in an email. “We don't expect to have to enforce the mandate as we look to residents to abide by the governor's order.”

Henry encouraged residents to comply with public health guidelines.

“Unquestionably, COVID-19 continues to be a serious threat to our community,” he said. “We must continue to look forward. We must make sure that we are masked whenever possible.”

Area cases

New cases of COVID-19 by county in northeast Indiana, as of Wednesday afternoon. Total cases in parentheses.

Adams 5 (63)

Allen 17 (3,217)

DeKalb 1 (180)

Huntington 2 (112)

Kosciusko 22 (711)

LaGrange 4 (504)

Noble 5 (579)

Steuben 3 (165)

Wabash 1 (132)

Whitley 1 (122)

Wells 1 (103)

Source: Indiana State Department of Health

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