Citizens Square will be closed to the public for eight weeks beginning Monday, and Allen County is implementing “hard caps” on gatherings and ordering bars and restaurants to close at midnight as new COVID-19 cases soar, local health and government officials said Tuesday.
The actions are needed because county cases, as well as Indiana's, are rising at “exponential” rates, said Dr. Matthew Sutter, county health commissioner, during a news conference at Citizens Square.
“Exponential” means new cases are doubling every seven days, putting the county, as of Tuesday, in the red zone, the most serious level, and prompting worries that hospitals will be overwhelmed, he said.
At the beginning of October, the county's daily case count was between 45 and 50, Sutter said. Now, he said, it's been “over 400.”
At that rate and if nothing is done, he said, daily cases could reach more than 4,000 in four weeks.
“We need to bend this curve now,” Sutter said.
Sutter added nearby counties will likely issue their own orders, which he expects will be substantially similar.
Allen County on Tuesday reported 304 more residents had been diagnosed with COVID-19, bringing the total to 14,489 since the beginning of case counting. An additional nine residents were reported as having died, with the county now having 273 deaths.
Statewide, new positive cases reached 5,541 and new deaths totaled 84. Indiana has now tallied 262,207 cases and 4,470 deaths.
“Several hundred” city workers at Citizens Square will be asked to work from home as a precaution, Mayor Tom Henry told The Journal Gazette.
City parks department offices and youth and community centers also will be closed, but public safety employees will not be affected, and trash and leaf collections will continue, he said. Animal Care and Control will be open with restrictions.
However, Sutter said indoor capacity at county bars and restaurants will be limited to 50%, with bar seating closed. Bars will close between midnight and 5 a.m.
Gyms will face the same capacity limits, but unlike previous restrictions, stores and personal care salons will not be affected. Sutter said that is because masks have been shown effective at preventing spread at such establishments.
Schools also will not be subject to limits because “we are not seeing significant spread in schools” and mask-wearing is feasible, he said.
Several area schools and school districts already have taken action to limit face-to-face instruction.
Sutter also urged people to stop having multifamily events, such as sleepovers, birthday parties and holiday gatherings.
“I really worry about what this (surge) means for the upcoming holiday season,” Sutter said, noting winter means more situations when people congregate indoors and the virus appears to spread more easily.
Although it has been an option in the past, the county will no longer approve gatherings or events of more than 100 people while the county is in the red zone or more than 250 people when the county is in orange, the second-most serious level.
Another sign that stricter measures are called for, he said, is that the county's 10 contract tracers can no longer keep up with new cases, and it is taking more time to schedule a test and get results, Sutter said.
Henry said that although he supports Sutter on the seriousness of the pandemic, he also supports even stricter measures to curb the virus.
He said that is why he issued the work-from-home ruling for many city workers. He said he feels a responsibility to keep them and city residents as safe as possible.
The order is in effect until Jan. 19, Henry said, adding he picked that date as being the end of quarantine restrictions from New Year's Day celebrations.
Henry said Citizens Square would not be closed for county employees who work in it, and he was unsure as to the impact on county public meetings.
Allen County Commissioner Rich Beck said county officials do not want to shut down businesses again.
“We have talked to a lot of businesses and they are under tremendous pressure. They are not sure they can survive another shutdown,” he said. “We don't want to take that next step. ... We really need to bend that curve.”
Sutter said he was expanding on statewide restrictions that allow local health officials to issue stricter measures to cope with local conditions.
“Internally, we are calling this (situation in Allen County) so red you need to stay home,” he said.
At a glance
New COVID-19 cases and deaths in area counties
Adams: 29 (2 deaths)
Allen: 304 (9 deaths)
Kosciusko: 60 (1 death)
LaGrange: 19 (1 death)
Noble: 34 (2 deaths)
Steuben: 28 (1 death)
Sources: Indiana State Department of Health, Allen County Department of Health, DeKalb County Health Department