The Journal Gazette
Friday, March 20, 2020 1:00 am

Holcomb announces new virus measures

Schools closed till May 1; time to file taxes extended

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Eric Holcomb on Thursday closed all schools until at least May 1 – just one of dozens of measures announced impacting everything from when you file taxes to whether you can be evicted.

The news came just hours after health officials reported 56 Hoosiers have been confirmed to have COVID-19 – a significant jump from 39 the day before. The number of tests being run has more than doubled to 380.

“These are times that try our souls,” Holcomb said.

“Every day we learn more about how to tackle this monster. We are being thoughtful about how to approach every action we are taking in this national public health emergency and putting Hoosiers' health and safety first.”

But Holcomb said “we're not there yet” when asked whether Hoosiers should shelter-in-place as some cities and states have done.

And he encouraged Hoosiers to make good decisions about personal hygiene and social gatherings to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box said the state is testing more people so naturally is seeing more positive cases. She continued to stress that people can transmit the disease even though they don't have symptoms, such as cough, fever and shortness of breath.

Thursday's announcement extending the closure of schools until May 1 was perhaps the biggest of the bunch.

Holcomb also ordered private schools to close. And he acknowledged it is possible that the closures could extend through the end of the regularly scheduled school year.

He said if students return May 1 he wants them focused on instruction and not cramming for tests, so Holcomb also canceled all state-mandated tests such as ILEARN and IREAD.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick said the Indiana Department of Education continues to work with districts using e-learning but understands some rural districts don't have the infrastructure to do so. Decisions on whether students will have to repeat grades still have to be made.

Another issue that is up in the air is the scheduled May 5 primary.

Holcomb said he personally supports postponing the primary due to health concerns of poll workers and voters.

He said discussions are ongoing with both the Indiana and Democratic political parties and the secretary of state.

Indiana's bipartisan Election Commission had scheduled an emergency meeting for today but it was canceled within hours.

The commission has the authority to allow all Hoosiers to vote using a mail-in absentee ballot, which is an option that others are pushing.

The governor said the state does not need a special legislative session at this time, though House and Senate leaders were on hand to express support for Hoosier families and businesses.

Holcomb made several economic-related announcements, including pushing the state tax deadline until July 15. He also said penalties will be waived for 60 days for property tax payments due May 11. Providers of essential utility services are prohibited from cutting off service during the public health emergency.

And Cris Johnston, the state's chief budget officer, said the state will not send out $300 million in cash that was to be spent on university building projects. The projects can continue with the use of bonding, but state coffers likely will need that money in the coming months as tax collections begin to plummet.

Holcomb couldn't estimate how badly the state will be hit.

Indiana currently has a $2.3 billion surplus, which sounds big but could run state government only for about 50 days.

Holcomb said Indiana is already seeing a massive increase in unemployment claims. More than 22,000 Hoosiers filed for unemployment Monday through Wednesday. In comparison to the same week one year ago the number was only 3,000.

He encouraged those who lose jobs due to the public health emergency to file quickly for unemployment with the Indiana Department of Workforce Development and said the state is interpreting the laws as broadly as possible to get aid to Hoosiers in need.

One significant change is the state won't assess experience-rate penalties against businesses that lay off workers so that the businesses don't see their unemployment premiums rise at this volatile time.

And Holcomb said the state is applying for federal authorization to give unemployment to some people who might not otherwise be eligible, for instance someone who had only recently started a job.

Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush said each county is operating under contingency plans and emergency and essential court work will still be done. She mentioned specifically the filing of things electronically.

During the public health emergency, no residential eviction or foreclosure actions can be filed. That doesn't mean Hoosiers shouldn't pay their rent and mortgage, though.

Participants in several state insurance or social service programs will have certain requirements waived, such as job search requirements or premium payments.

Actions announced Thursday

• All K-12 public schools will remain closed until at least May 1. Non-public schools are also ordered closed. Closure could extend to the rest of the school year depending on circumstances.

• All state mandated assessments will be canceled for the current academic year.

• Indiana's tax deadline has been moved to July 15.

• Penalties will be waived for 60 days for property tax paid after May 11. The state will work with counties that may experience cash flow stress because of the delay.

• The state will not move forward with using $300 million in reserves to pay cash for several university building projects, instead leaving the money in state reserves for flexibility.

• Providers of essential utility services such as gas and electric, broadband, telecom, water and wastewater services are prohibited from discontinuing service to any customer during the public health emergency.

• The U.S. Small Business Administration approved a state disaster declaration, which provides targeted, low-interest loans of up to $2 million to help small businesses and nonprofits overcome the temporary loss of revenue as a result of coronavirus.

• The state will interpret Indiana's unemployment laws to the broadest extent possible to cover Hoosiers who are out of work because of COVID-19. One big change is the state won't assess experience penalties to employers who lay off workers due to the pandemic. 

• No residential eviction proceedings or foreclosure actions may be initiated during the public health emergency. This does not relieve the individual of obligations to pay rent or mortgage payments.

• All public housing authorities are requested to extend deadlines for housing assistance recipients and required documentation to show eligibility for housing programs.

• Participants in the Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP) and the Children's Health Insurance Program are not required to make premium payments.

• Job search requirements are waived for those applying for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) benefits.

• The Family and Social Services Administration will seek a federal waiver to extend renewals for existing Medicaid and HIP recipients.

• Telehealth services for mental health, substance use disorder and prescribing for Medicaid covered services will be expanded.

• To limit the number of in-branch transactions, late fees will be waived for several driver's licenses and identification card renewals, vehicle registrations, titles, and certain other transactions. 

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