Businesses and restaurants in Kokomo and Howard County are being required to reduce their occupancy to 75% in an attempt by local officials to clamp down on a massive surge of new COVID-19 cases in the county.
The restriction comes in a new ordinance approved by the Howard County Board of Commissioners that also lists recommendations on wearing masks, limiting social gatherings and encouraging social distancing.
Commissioner Paul Wyman, in a press conference Friday morning, said the ordinance takes effect at 7 a.m. Monday and will run through Dec. 30, but restrictions could lessen or become more strict depending on the spread of the virus.
Howard County Health Officer Emily Backer said new cases of COVID-19 skyrocketed this week, as colder weather has forced residents indoors and many people are letting down their guard against the virus due to “pandemic fatigue.”
On Thursday, the county logged 290 new positive COVID tests in a 24-hour period, blowing past the previous record of 69 new cases reported on Wednesday. Friday saw another 126 new cases. The county now has a running total of 3,017 reported cases.
This week’s surge was fueled by a huge outbreak inside the Howard County jail. Sheriff Jerry Asher said there are currently 226 inmates who have contracted the virus since last week, which is more than half of the entire jail population.
He said the state’s COVID strike team visited the facility over the weekend to conduct rapid testing, and there are still 85 tests pending. However, no inmates have had severe enough symptoms to require hospitalization, he said.
Outside the jail, new cases are also soaring. Wyman said just 10 people a day were contracting the virus on average a month ago. Today, that number sits at 65. Wyman said if the trend continues, the county could see up to 90 new cases a day in the near future.
“That uptick is here,” he said. “It’s real and it’s significant ... If this trend continues, and we continue to double in spread, it will put maximum pressure on all other resources we have in our community.”
Wyman said the monumental surge of new cases led to the ordinance requiring businesses to reduce capacity. That restriction received support from Kokomo Mayor Tyler Moore and health officials, who all said it was needed to curb the number of new cases.
Wyman said there will be no fines for businesses that violate the order. However, the health department has the authority to issue cease-and-desist orders to those who don’t comply.
“It’s my hope and prayer that we never have to do that to a business, but we’re confident by taking this initial step it will reduce the spread,” he said. “We have a high confidence level in the businesses in our community that they will adhere to this 75% capacity.”
The ordinance also “strongly encourages” everyone to wear a mask in all public places and maintain social distancing. Restaurants and bar patrons should only remove masks when eating and drinking.
The ordinance encourages all church attendees to wear masks and socially distance during services, and virtual services are still advised for those susceptible to the virus.
Students should avoid congregating in friends’ homes or other public places, and people who were exposed to the virus should stay home and quarantine, per guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control.
The ordinance also recommends that all community sports league events should only be conducted with participants, and spectators should be limited to family members only.
Beyond the ordinance, health officer Backer said the county has a plan in place to distribute new vaccines being developed by pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer. She said they are hopeful the county would receive batches of the vaccine by early spring or early summer.
Vaccines would first be distributed to hospitals for high-risk individuals and front line health care workers, Backer said. After that, plans are in place to administer the vaccine to anyone who wants one.
But until then, Wyman said, residents should remain hyper-vigilant to avoid contracting and spreading the virus in the midst of the worst surge since COVID hit the county in March.
“This is a tricky moment,” he said. “The virus is tricky. There is light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine, but that’s three to six months down the road. That means we need to fight even harder this three to six months to ensure our success. If we don’t, the danger is overrunning our resources and hospitals and health care systems.”