In its final meeting before at least 35,000 Purdue students return to campus and Greater Lafayette schools resume instruction, the Tippecanoe County Board of Health unanimously gave health officer Jeremy Adler broad jurisdiction to enact policies dictating safety guidelines.
Adler has repeatedly raised concerns about the effect of off-campus activities on the broader community. During Wednesday morning’s board of health meeting, he furthered an idea about extending capacity limitations in bars and restaurants, which until at least Aug. 27 can operate at 50% and 75%, respectively, according to Gov. Eric Holcomb's statewide guidelines.
The health officer didn’t stop at capacity restrictions.
He proposed a reimagined view of bars that more closely mirrors the operations of a restaurant: only table-top service, so people must be seated at tables and not gathered at bars; closed dance floors and limited game areas, so customers don’t mingle around pool tables or dart boards; and closing time at midnight rather than 2 or 3 a.m.
“In essence, the bar would look like a restaurant,” he said, “with a lot of people just at tables socializing rather than standing and milling around.
“If we decide to do something like this, it would have to apply to all bars, restaurants and nightclubs, throughout the county, not just those that are surrounding campus.”
A motion forwarded by Dr. James Bien, chief medical officer at IU Health Arnett, endorsed Adler to act on behalf of the board of health to “impose additional restrictions that he feels are going to be in the best interest of the public health.” The motion passed unanimously.
Adler cited clusters of cases stemming from bars around the country and an order from the Monroe County health officer extending capacity and service restrictions as students of Indiana University prepare to return.
Beginning July 31, health officer Thomas Sharp ordered that Monroe County restaurants, bars and nightclubs must “have and require table-top seating for all patrons and must require patrons to remain seated at tables,” the July 22 order reads. Bar-top services were disallowed.
Sharp also required groups of patrons to remain at least 6 feet apart and limited the number of people per table to 10. The order increased air ventilation to its maximum quality, meaning six air changes per hour, and encouraged establishments to use outdoor seating as much as possible.
“I certainly think all the data we’re following shows it’s getting worse, not better,” Tippecanoe County board member Dr. John Thomas said. “And the reasonable response to it getting worse would be to make things more tight, not less tight.”
Ramping up communications with Purdue
As Purdue’s reopening approaches, the Tippecanoe County Health Department has urged University administrators to increase direct reporting of information related to the tracking and spread of COVID-19.
County commissioners on Monday introduced a memorandum of understanding that granted the Protect Purdue Health Center authority to trace contacts of Purdue students, faculty and staff while leaving contact tracing of community members not affiliated with the University to the health department. The MOU takes effect Aug. 15.
Purdue also must provide a complete list of high-risk contacts and COVID-19 carriers directly to the county, rather than relying on results reported only to the Indiana State Department of Health to filter down to the county level.
Adler requested this “backup system” last week after delays in the ISDH distributing test results from Purdue Athletics to the county raised alarm among health department officials.
“We have a means to share data directly between the two of us and not worry about any kind of delay that might occur going through the state,” Adler said, “because the state has to deal with a lot of information from all over the state.”
Purdue also aims to change the way the public is informed of positive cases, including clusters, by requesting the health department refer Purdue-related inquiries to Purdue media representatives. This change may depart from the health department's usual policy of reporting clusters of COVID-19 cases, wherever they occur in the county.
In a meeting Thursday, Adler directed county health officials to refrain from answering questions related to Purdue’s COVID-19 data tracking, The Exponent reported last week.
The development is a departure from conversations with health department administrator Khala Hochstedler and executive assistant Amanda Balser, during which both noted discrepancies between the number of cases being reported from the ISDH to the county and the number announced by Purdue athletics.
“Purdue has requested that any questions about Purdue’s COVID-19 data, students or policies — they’ve requested that we defer those questions to them,” Adler said. “Which makes sense because they’d be in a better position to know about the specifics of what’s going on on the campus.”