The state's move to Stage 5 in its reopening plan surely is welcome news to Indiana business owners saddled with months of restrictions on their operations because of the coronavirus.
But lifting restrictions on gatherings is not a return to pre-COVID normal. Public health experts expect an increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases because of the move to Stage 5 and other factors, including cooler weather, that will push more people inside. A looming flu season also could bring problems, and doctors are urging people to get their flu vaccine.
Stage 5 is the last step in the plan and allows businesses such as bars and restaurants to fully reopen. But a mask mandate and requirements that customers socially distance remain.
Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the move – it took effect Saturday – in a news conference last week, saying data such as a state positivity rate that recently has hovered around 4% signals the time is ripe to move forward with plans to move toward more normal day-to-day interactions with others. The positivity rate refers to the percentage of tests for the disease caused by the coronavirus that are positive.
Doctors, including State Health Commissioner Kristina Box and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, have said the rate recommended for reopening is 5%. The Allen County rate was 5% as of Sunday, according to numbers available Monday from the Indiana State Department of Health.
“The numbers continue to track in the right direction,” Holcomb said, repeating pleas for Hoosiers to continue wearing masks and follow other preventive measures.
That could soon change, according to those who track the data.
“I do believe that we will see an increase in COVID cases following the move to Stage 5,” Brian Dixon, director of public health informatics at the Regenstrief Institute, a research agency in Indianapolis, said in an email. “The increase this time will be due to a number of factors, including weather – the cold snap will move people indoors – more crowded restaurants and bars, and the loosening of restrictions in surrounding states. I fully anticipate that people will begin to travel again this fall, which means individuals might bring home the virus along with their photos and souvenirs.”
Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter said he also is expecting an increase in COVID-19 cases, and health care providers could be taxed if there also is a surge in influenza. Holcomb's order keeps some restrictions in place, but Sutter said it's up to Hoosiers to abide by rules such as mask requirements and social distancing.
If not, guidelines more restrictive than the state's could be put in place.
“We need people to act responsibly,” Sutter said.
Patrick Tamm, president and CEO of the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association, said business owners are grateful for the move to Stage 5 because it allows them to use their space more flexibly. But a return to normal still is a long way off for most, he said.
“A restaurant's business model is based on how many guests they can fit into their space at one time, fitting tables closely, but as comfortably as possible, together,” Tamm said. “Therefore, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any restaurant to seat full capacity while maintaining six feet of distance between patrons.”