INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb on Thursday ordered all of the state's public and private schools to remain closed through at least the end of April as part of the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which has already forced many businesses throughout the state to close and led to a surge in requests for unemployment benefits.
All Indiana public school districts had already decided to close or shift to online classwork, but Holcomb ordered them to remain closed until May 1 and extended the order to cover private K-12 schools.
Holcomb earlier this week called for all restaurants to provide only drive-through or delivery services and for all bars and nightclubs to close. But he said Thursday that he was "not there yet" when asked whether he would join parts of the country in requiring residents to stay home and go out only for essential purposes.
Indiana will see "painful losses" from the coronavirus outbreak and everybody needs to do their part to stem its spread, he said.
"There is no greater civil liberty than the liberty to not be infected by irresponsible actions and behaviors of others who would dangerously impact the health and safety of our fellow citizens," Holcomb said.
The state health department on Thursday reported 17 new cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. That brought the state's total count to 56 cases out of 380 tested in 22 of its 92 counties.
Indiana has had two COVID-19 deaths, one each in Marion and Johnson counties.
The state health commissioner, Dr. Kristina Box, said more testing was being done around the state but that testing would continue to be focused on those with the most serious symptoms.
The state has more than four times as many confirmed cases than it did a week ago.
"I expect those numbers to go up, so I don't want people to be panicked about it," Box said.
Holcomb said it was possible that the state's 1.1 million students might be out of school for the remainder of the academic year and that he was calling off this spring's scheduled standardized tests.
"If, by some miracle, we get students back this year, we'll use that time in class for instruction, not cramming for tests," he said.
For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
According to the World Health Organization, people with mild cases recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe ones can take three to six weeks to get better.
Several Indiana auto plants and other factories have closed because of the pandemic, and coupled with a 50-person limit on public gatherings, the state has seen the same surge in unemployment claims that other states have seen.
Indiana had 22,583 people file for jobless benefits during the first three days this week, compared to 3,100 people for the full week a year ago, Holcomb said.
The governor on Thursday signed orders aimed at easing applications for unemployment benefits and delaying the deadline for state income tax payments until July 15. Holcomb also delayed the planned spending of $300 million from state reserves to pay for several college campus construction projects.
"We're going to do everything in our power and in our ability ... to bridge where we are now to that day where we completely bounce back," he said.
STATE CONSIDERING PRIMARY DElaY
State officials are considering delaying the state's primary election as several other states are doing to help ensure voters worried about the coronavirus outbreak can safely cast their ballots.
Holcomb said Thursday he was in favor of pushing back the May 5 primary but that GOP Secretary of State Connie Lawson was leading discussions with state political party leaders.
Holcomb said he was concerned about the safety of county election officials, polling site workers and voters.
"I'll support, ultimately, the decision to delay our primary election," Holcomb said. "We're trying to build consensus here. That's the best outcome for something as important as an election."
Indiana has no challenged races for statewide elected offices in this year's primary and it is uncertain whether the Democratic presidential race will remain undecided. Multiple candidates are seeking nominations for congressional seats being given up by Democrat Rep. Pete Visclosky and Republican Rep. Susan Brooks.
Ohio and Kentucky are among at least seven states that have delayed primaries and others are considering increased voting by mail.
Republican and Democratic party chairman wrote a joint letter to the state election commission last week asking for it to relax the rules for requesting mail-in absentee ballots.
The commission hasn't yet taken any action and the secretary of state's office spokeswoman said she had no updates available.
State Democratic Chairman John Zody said he believed conducting the primary largely by mail was the best option.
"We are engaged in a constructive dialogue with our Republican counterparts and those discussions are ongoing," he said in a statement.
The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content. Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.