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JAMES BRIGGS

Briggs: Holcomb’s mask mandate has been vindicated

Conservative governors in other states resisted a mask mandate. Now, they're jumping on board.

James Briggs
Indianapolis Star

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb was right to implement a mask mandate.

You might still disagree. You might have a lot to say about freedom and the Constitution. You might even wish Libertarian Donald Rainwater was going to be our governor. But here’s something that neither you nor I have: responsibility for millions of lives across an entire state.

Some of the people who do hold that responsibility, governors in other states, have held out on mask mandates, arguing against them for the same reasons that Holcomb’s critics have leveled. But, now, they're jumping on board.

Governor Eric Holcomb puts back on his mask after speaking at the MonoSol Lebanon Facility ribbon cutting event, Thursday, July 16, 2020.

“There are some that believe if either the federal government or the state would just issue more mandates or restrictions that all would be solved, that there’s somehow some kind of magic bullet that government can provide,” North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said last month, according to The Washington Post. “There’s another side that believes any action serving the greater good related to public health are in fact infringements on their personal rights.”

Burgum, a Republican, was on the personal rights side — until that supposed personal right to not wear a piece of cloth over your face collided with a runaway pandemic that is worse in North Dakota than in any other state. Just a few weeks after Burgum’s appeal to personal rights, the governor implemented a mask mandate.

So has Kim Reynolds, the Republican governor of Iowa, and Gary Herbert, the Republican governor of Utah. As the novel coronavirus spreads unabated across the U.S., the conservative politics of liberty are colliding with the reality that masks can reduce COVID-19 transmission.

Reality is winning. It has vindicated Holcomb’s mask mandate.

Eric Holcomb, who won the 2020 Indiana gubernatorial election, greets well-wishers after his reelection victory on Election Day, Indianapolis, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

That’s not to suggest Holcomb has done everything right. To be sure, the coronavirus is out of control in Indiana even with the mask mandate.

Holcomb on Sept. 23 moved Indiana into Stage 5 of his reopening plan, which lifted most pandemic restrictions. A week ago, as he imposed new restrictions amid soaring COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Holcomb expressed surprise that people took Stage 5 as a sign that they could resume normal activities, even though that was a fairly obvious implication of reaching the final phase, which the governor celebrated back in September.

You can argue — as I have — that Holcomb’s latest actions won’t be enough to contain the coronavirus until we get widespread distribution of a vaccine. You also can argue that Holcomb’s mask mandate was relatively toothless without a penalty.

But here’s what is no longer up for debate: Holcomb was right in July when he issued his mask mandate, and he has been right to stick with it, despite the intense pushback he has received from the right.

The mask mandate once again became a topic of discussion this week as the Indiana General Assembly convened for the ceremonial start of the 2021 session. All but two lawmakers — Rep. Curt Nisly, R-Milford, and Rep. John Jacob, R-Indianapolis — wore masks, although the Indiana House defeated a proposed rule to require usage among lawmakers.

Holcomb and state health commissioner Dr. Kristina Box were asked Wednesday about the legislature’s posture on masks. Both emphasized that most lawmakers wore them.

“There is no single Hoosier in this state that should not follow the mask mandate, not only to protect themselves, but to protect other individuals,” Box said.

Holcomb added that it “does set the right example” to wear a mask.

So does issuing a mask mandate.

Critics, of course, are right that Holcomb’s mask mandate is more or less unenforceable. There is no scenario, even with a penalty, in which police would start rounding up offenders. That leaves a notable difference in observance to the rule between Central Indiana counties and other areas of the state.

There's no way to show precisely how effective Indiana's mask mandate has been at containing the coronavirus. Some people are going to resist face coverings no matter what the rules are and no matter how obviously disrespectful it is to ignore the science and put others at risk. But Holcomb’s order has set a tone for businesses and their customers, and it almost certainly convinced at least some people to wear a mask even if they didn’t want to.

Consider North Dakota again. Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, recently noted to The Washington Post that North Dakota had the highest COVID-19 death rate per capita in the world — and, at the same time, the lowest mask-wearing rate in the U.S.

Other conservative governors, including Herbert in Utah, used to argued that a mask mandate wouldn’t make a difference. Now that the pandemic is reaching crisis levels and public policy matters more than ever, those governors have become convinced that they were wrong — and they're adopting a policy that Holcomb introduced four months ago.

Contact IndyStar metro columnist James Briggs at 317-444-6307. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesEBriggs.