Marion County set to ease some restrictions on bars, restaurants and live events starting Monday


INDIANAPOLIS – Citing a drop in the positivity rate and decline in daily cases, Marion County will ease some coronavirus restrictions.

The following will be in place on Monday, Sept. 28:

  • Restaurants, bars, nightclubs and food establishments may seat up to 50% indoor capacity and 100% outside
  • Museums and entertainment venues can open to 50% capacity
  • Gyms, fitness centers to 50% capacity
  • Live entertainment can resume at bars, clubs and performance venues with social distancing precautions in place; 10-foot buffer between stages and the audience; audience members must socially distance
  • Bars, restaurants must close at midnight
  • Bar-top seating will remain closed
  • Churches at 75% capacity for indoor services (no limit on outdoor services)
  • Assisted living facilities may open to indoor visitation

According to Mayor Joe Hogsett, the 7-day moving average rate for all tests in Marion County has fallen to 4.8%, allowing for the easing of some restrictions. He sympathized with residents who are upset with the restrictions but said he and his staff have to balance health with economic concerns.

“Many prefer restrictions of any kind be completely abolished. We all wish that this global health crisis had presented us with an easy, painless decision. The truth is it hasn’t, and it won’t,” he said.

“We can’t completely ignore this pandemic any more than we can indefinitely suspend all economic activity, especially in the absence of congressional action to provide additional relief.”

Marion County is twice as populous as Indiana’s next-largest county, Hogsett pointed out, meaning restrictions must reflect the higher population density and differ from rural and suburban areas. He said decisions are guided by the best available data and the consultation of health experts.

Some Indianapolis bar and nightclub owners said they were disappointed with the update on Friday.

Jason Stellema operates Tiki Bob’s Cantina in downtown Indianapolis. A health order that took effect on September 8 allowed Marion County bars and nightclubs to reopen after the establishments were shut down again in late July. Stellema has not reopened his business because dance floors must remain closed and patrons have to be seated.

“We have been left behind the state guidelines that allow different rules for the same business we have,” he said. “It is our understanding a lot of businesses up [in Hamilton County] are actually doing two to three times the volume they have done in years past because people are leaving Marion County to go where it is less restrictive.”

Bar seating is still not allowed and all restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and retail food establishments must be closed and cleared of all customers between the hours of 12:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. nightly.

“Closing at midnight is absolutely ridiculous for most of our business models,” Stellema said. “I have talked to some bar owners out there who are having customers leave their bars at 10:00, 10:30, 11:00 to go to surrounding counties because they can stay out later.”

Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department, said more than 50 percent of complaints came from the bars and taverns when the establishments were forced to shut down again in late July.

She stated their decisions are guided by science and the data.

“We were close last time. We got excited. We got down to 45 cases per day and we got down to 4.2 percent positivity,” said Caine. “This is a lesson learned. We went too fast compared to the state.”

The demographics continue to change, with the majority of new COVID-19 cases being found among people 20 to 39 years old. There has also been a sharp increase in cases among people 19 years old and under. 18 and 19 year olds make up about 75 percent of cases in that age group, Caine said.

According to Caine, positivity rate and new daily cases are the two criteria they look at to make reopening decisions. If the county gets down to 35 cases per day and under a 5 percent positivity rate for two weeks, everything “will be almost near normal.” The daily case threshold is based on CDC guidance, Caine said.

On Friday Caine said she hopes Marion County can meet that mark by November 1.

Right now Marion County is seeing roughly 85 cases per day. Caine said we were reaching 150 cases per day at the beginning of August.

The general trend of cases was down and hospitalizations were flat, according to Caine. She said the numbers show how important it is for people to continue wearing a mask, practicing good hygiene (hand washing, disinfecting) and engaging in social distancing.

Caine also believes students can return to the classroom. She said K-8 students can go to class in-person full time. Students in 9th through 12th grades can only return in-person full time when the positivity rate dips below 5 percent and the daily number of new cases is 35 or lower for two weeks.

Up to 1,500 individuals are allowed to attend outdoor athletic events for high schools; indoor events can have 500 people or 50% capacity of the venue, whichever is less. Those rules, Caine stressed, apply only to high school athletic events.

Caine also said a “number of businesses” had been fined $1,000 for violating public health orders.

“We learned a lot of lessons at the beginning of this epidemic,” Caine said, adding that the information helped guide decisions over the last few months.

When asked about the mask mandate and how long it will continue, Caine said a final decision has not been made. She will continue to look at the data before making a determination.

Hogsett expects to make an announcement on the allocation of additional aid next week.

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