Uptick has occurred since state loosened stay-at-home regulations

SOUTH BEND — Coronavirus cases have begun to tick back up in St. Joseph County since Indiana allowed businesses to start reopening May 4, a county health official said Friday.

Trending upwards

A Low Bob’s Discount Tobacco store in South Bend informs customers to wear masks, a move required by a St. Joseph County Department of Health order to slow transmission of the coronavirus. 

“Stage 2” of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s back-on-track plan called for manufacturers of non-essential goods to resume production and for retail stores to open back up at 50% capacity. The county’s rolling seven-day average of new daily cases had fallen from about 29 on April 20 to 14 on May 4, but had increased back up to 20 by May 14.

More testing has become available locally since Stage 2 began, and that’s intended to identify more cases, but testing availability hasn’t grown enough to account for all of the increase in positive cases, said Dr. Mark Fox, the county’s deputy health officer.

“The proportion of people testing positive has stayed about the same, and there has been a modest increase in capacity but frankly not a dramatic increase,” Fox said. “Based on that, it does appear that there is a real increase in cases and likely it’s attributable to ... caution fatigue or general increased public interaction and commercial activity.”

Mayor James Mueller had criticized Holcomb’s plan when it was unveiled May 1.

“We had gone down, we had plateaued that ascent, and now we may be rising again,” Mueller said Friday at a weekly video news conference with Fox. “And we won’t know the full extent of the impacts of this first phase of reopening for a couple more weeks still.”

Mueller urged people to follow the county health department’s order to wear masks in public enclosed spaces where social distancing of 6 feet can’t be maintained. He said the masks are no more of an infringement on individual freedoms than the health code requiring people to wear shoes in businesses.

“These masks are one of the big differences between where we were before we went to the stay-at-home order and where we are now,” Mueller said.

The health department order also requires stores to offer customers hand sanitizer.

Fox said health department inspectors were investigating six complaints at businesses that aren’t requiring employees or customers to wear masks, or aren’t mandating that customers remain at least 6 feet apart.

When the health department receives a complaint, an inspector visits and observes the business to verify the substance of the complaint before identifying themselves. The inspector then has a conversation with staff.

The department hasn’t yet issued an abatement order against any businesses. If that happens, and a business still refuses to comply, the health department can shut the business down until the order is followed.

Last week a cashier at a Mishawaka 7-Eleven store was assaulted after telling a man he couldn’t be served because he wasn’t wearing a face covering.

“Obviously some places are understandably concerned about the risk of violence and don’t want to be confrontational about it,” Fox said. “Nobody wants to see the situations escalate, but at the same time we don’t want people to shrug their shoulders and not do anything.”

With 8,992 tests conducted, there were 890 confirmed coronavirus cases in the county as of Friday afternoon, with 33 deaths and 57 people currently hospitalized.

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