Times such as these call for effective leadership, and the tone of the message may be almost as important as the content. Monday's address by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb struck the proper balance between thanking Hoosiers for how they have already responded to the COVID-19 crisis and telling them clearly that they must do even more.
He was engaged and passionate without conveying either panic or despair. “I'm telling you the next two weeks are critical if we're going to slow the spread,” Holcomb said. “And we must slow the spread.”
The governor might have used more non-central Indiana examples in his statewide address, but overall he effectively underscored that all of us are in this together — both those who understand the seriousness of the situation and those who, for whatever reason, don't yet get it.
Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan has been trying to deliver a similar message in Fort Wayne. Last week, when the Health Department asked local residents to limit gatherings to 10 persons or fewer, most people seemed to understand and comply with that limit, which was based on a recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Saturday, a few hours before normal Sunday worship hours, McMahan sent out an order making it clear that churches must observe the fewer-than-10 limit until at least April 11. As The Journal Gazette's Matthew LeBlanc reported Monday, this generated protests from some who saw the order as an attack on religious freedom.
In an interview Monday, McMahan said she was surprised by the reaction, noting she had met with representatives of the faith community and religious leaders seemed to agree that churches would have to change their way of operating while the virus threatens our community. That included limiting groups to 10 or fewer people.
But, she said, that was in no way an effort to curtail religious freedom.
“Faith is absolutely crucial right now to people getting through this,” McMahan said. “It's not the intention to somehow close people's ability to practice their faith. It's how they do it — like everything else, it needs to look different” right now, she said.
But although most churches were already planning to have online-only services, some churches still weren't sure whether the general limits applied to their gatherings, McMahan said. The department issued a reminder Friday and, after receiving inquiries afterward, decided to issue a more direct order Saturday. McMahan said she also was responding to specific “epidemiological information I'm not privy to share. ... I felt based on the information that I had that we really needed to act quickly.”
Holcomb's order Monday reinforced the message McMahan has been trying to get across, setting the state limit for gatherings to 10 people or fewer.
There will be a time, once this crisis has passed, when concerns such as those raised about local and state orders can and should be explored further. In those coming, calmer times, the legislature will be free to pursue rewriting the laws governing emergencies such as this one.
For now, though, the focus should be on saving lives and preventing the breakdown of our state and local health care system. McMahan and Holcomb see the coming days as critical, and they are acting within the state law. People of all faiths and political persuasions need to grasp that.