(TNS) - The Elkhart County Health Department will begin educating businesses and entities today about compliance with the countywide COVID-19 mitigation ordinance passed Nov. 30.
"What businesses can expect tomorrow is education," Melanie Sizemore, health department spokesperson, said Wednesday. "We will be providing education to the businesses to see how we can help them."
At the beginning, all of the inspector visits will be about education, Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Lydia Mertz explained. "But repeat offenders and people who are big spreaders, those are the things we want to hit first on," she said.
Elkhart County Emergency Management Director Jenn Tobey said that environmental health and code enforcement staff will lead the visits. They have a list of operations that they have received complaints about.
Tobey said that as of Wednesday, they had 543 complaints. Those complaints have been put on a spreadsheet and examined to weed out disgruntled employees and focus on places that might have issues.
Contact could just be a courtesy phone call saying that a complaint has been received about violations and then ask if an inspector can come out to do a visit, Tobey said, adding that if a business gets repeated complaints, a team of two will go on site to visit.
She said that the health department will not be doing 200 business inspection a day and begin fining people.
"The goal is to educate," Tobey said. As of Wednesday, there were 38 deaths in Elkhart County, she pointed out. "That's scary."
There may also be some inspections of events if problems arise.
"I'm not saying we will show up to denied events and fine them all," Tobey said. But if inspectors do show up, education will take place.
Mertz likened the ordinance to getting caught speeding.
"This is like the speed limit signs. We should follow the speed limit, but you know if it's a straight road, nobody's around, we don't," she said. "The first thing a police officer does, unless you're really acting crazy, is he's going to give you some education. He's going to say, 'Hey look. Don't do that.' And we know that those speed limit signs are there for our safety and the safety of the people around us, so we don't lose control of the car and kill somebody else. So that's what this is. The speed limit signs are up, so distance, wear a mask, wash your hands, avoid crowds, because that's what makes people sick. That's what kills people. ... This is the police car that you see by the road and suddenly everybody's driving the speed limit. That's what we are. We are the police car by the side of the road, just reminding people that we're serious about this."
That said, after educating businesses and entities about the ordinance, violators will be fined.
"Absolutely," Mertz said. "They've got plenty of chances to get things right. We want to work with people to get things right. We want them to be able to approach customers coming in without a mask in a non-confrontive way, but just to get people to wear a mask, or else use curbside service."
The goal is just to give businesses and entities the support they need to get customers or employees to wear masks and observe the other COVID mitigation mandates, she said.
Mertz said she realizes it won't be perfect. "We don't need perfection," she said. "We need almost everybody to do it. We're human, so we're going to slip up every now and again."
Because the health department did not have enough staff to inspect businesses and entities throughout the county and cities, the ordinance was written so that cities could enact their own ordinances in support of the county.
So far, Elkhart is the only one to do so. Goshen is moving toward more education. Nappanee tabled its ordinance for further discussion.
The Elkhart City Council passed its ordinance, an amended version of the county ordinance, Monday night. The amended version passed 7-2 with it adopting the same county ordinance except that it added one more warning and then a $100 fine for a third offense, followed by a $250 fine for a fourth offense, explained Corinne Straight-Reed, director of communications for Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson.
The difference is that those who violate the county's ordinance will get one warning and then be fined up to $2,500 for the second offense and up to $5,000 for the third offense and beyond.
To file a complaint, go online to https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdEVfR0gjK_kWqCqelnvp3dV0-kK2Gkz4_gYS-TXtfzV6dOZQ/viewform or call 574-523-2106 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Sheila Selman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 240311. Follow Sheila on Twitter @sselman_TGN.
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