SHELBURN, Ind. — At this writing, Indiana reported a record high 2,800 new COVID-19 cases. This comes as Hoosiers are in the midst of deciding whether to rehire Gov. Eric Holcomb, or change course with Democrat and former health commissioner Woody Myers, or Libertarian Donald Rainwater.
Myers entered this race with what appeared to be the perfect resume, having served when AIDS first surfaced. Yet on his final 2019 finance report, he posted just $14,000 while the Democratic caucuses in the General Assembly are tiny, having endured super minority status for the past four years. There are no Libertarians in the legislature, Rainwater has few if any relationships there, and it’s hard to see how he would stock a new administration.
In a sign of how strange an election year this is, Rainwater has raised enough money to run statewide TV and radio ads over the final two weeks; Myers was sitting on a mere $80,000 at the end of the third quarter and is radio silent. Political fundraising shouldn’t be the prism under which to make a choice, but it is a factor when it comes to choosing a governor who would have the political support and governing components.
Last Saturday, I traveled with Gov. Holcomb on a rare pandemic campaign swing. We both wore face masks the entire time. Nine months ago, he was sitting on an $8 million campaign war chest, a 3.2% jobless rate and a $60 billion road funding plan. And then came the pandemic which forced the governor to impose an unprecedented economic shutdown. The pandemic has since killed 3,831 Hoosiers, forced schools to close, put half a million small businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, and the jobless rate hit 17% by May before declining to 6.2% in September.
Holcomb said that with the shutdown he ordered last March, “We had to get our footing because of the scale and pace this virus was moving, we had to make sure we had that capacity to care for those in need.” On Saturday, there were 36.3% of ICU beds and 79.6% of ventilators available.
Holcomb said that should the surge of infections continue, the state will have the ability to add ICU capacity. “We have a long way to go,” Holcomb said. “We’re detecting more. Our tracing is getting more sophisticated. Ultimately knowing that we’re going to continue to detect cases, it’s how you manage the spread.”
He opted to drop most of the shutdown restrictions to Stage 5, just as the third COVID wave began to hit. Stopping at WTWO-TV on the way to the Sullivan County Republican Lincoln Luncheon, reporter Taylor Johnson asked whether he would roll the state back from Stage 5. “We’re still in Stage 5, which is still a stage,” the masked governor said. “We’re not going back to the good ol’ days where we just let ‘er rip. We’re still awaiting a vaccine and therapeutics. Until that fine day, this is in large terms, up to us in how we slow the spread.”
On Wednesday during his weekly pandemic press conference, a reporter suggested that the “blanket approach” taken with Holcomb’s “hunkering down” order last March had successfully brought the COVID cases down, only to see the dramatic spikes seen shortly after Holcomb announced Stage 5 in late September.
“We started with a very targeted approach,” he said, pushing back. “Marion County was treated very differently; Cass County was treated very differently and throughout the different stages we got our footing and there was no blanket approach. We dealt with this very surgically. Once we had the capacity statewide, then we were able to move statewide to stage 5.”
Just minutes before, he had announced the deployment of National Guard troops to nursing homes to assist fatigued workers after eight months of dealing with the pandemic.
Another reporter asked him about taking what Woody Myers called a “mask suggestion” as opposed to a mask mandate, with sanctions for those not getting with the program. Holcomb responded, “We’re not living in a police state. Our liberties do need to be protected and I also mentioned they should not infringe or harm anyone else. We can go through why masks are safe. We know that they are. The last thing I want to do is go back to a stay at home” order.
As we drove down U.S. 41, I asked the governor what his basic message was to an alarmed and fatigued population.
“I don’t think any of us can afford to have a false sense of security, because this virus uses people to spread, and it kills,” he said. “We have a personal responsibility to do all we can do to slow the spread. That’s not a slogan. If we do slow the spread of COVID-19, that will allow us to continue to take care of the people in need. If we don’t; if we whistle past the graveyard, if we throw caution to the wind then that will affect our capacity to care.
“We’re going to have to endure this new normal as long as it takes,” he continued. “If we act responsibly, the safer we all will be until we get to that day of advanced therapeutics and a vaccine and enough people buy into that.”
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.