Nearly three months after suspending Indiana’s reopening plan, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced this afternoon that the state will move to the final phase, Stage 5, Saturday, as the statewide mask order remains in place indefinitely. 

The decision to reopen more of the state’s economy was announced at this afternoon’s weekly press conference with Holcomb and Dr. Kristina Box, the commissioner of the state Department of Health.

Stage 5 starts Saturday and is scheduled to be in effect until Oct. 17, providing that the numbers continue to trend downward.

In Stage 5, limits on the number of people who can gather in groups and capacity limits in nightclubs and bars are eliminated.

For a gathering of above 500, local health officials should be consulted.

Bars and nightclubs are still required to enforce social distancing measures, including asking that patrons remain seated.

Senior centers and meal sites can be reopened, but Holcomb again emphasized the use of precautions like social distancing and wearing a mask.

Both Holcomb and Box noted that the positivity rate of the novel coronavirus has declined from 6.4% in July to 3.9%.

The positivity rate refers to the number of people who test positive for COVID-19 out of the total number tested.

Box attributed the decline in part to the statewide mask mandate Holcomb put in place on July 27.

Holcomb and Box said the loosening of restrictions should not be taken as a complete return to the pre-pandemic normal.

“All it takes is one outbreak, or a group of people who don’t wear masks or don’t practice social distancing and those numbers can spike quickly,” Box said. “So, as we move into Stage 5, it is absolutely imperative to know that this is not a return to life the way we knew it in January.”

The mask mandate will continue, and Box explained that cloth masks have been proven not only to lessen the risk of spreading the virus from exhaled respiratory droplets, but they also prevent the wearer from inhaling large, infected droplets.

“Masks should be used as a part of a comprehensive strategy to suppress the spread of COVID-19 virus,” Box said.

In response to a question regarding regulations imposed on bars in Indianapolis by Mayor Joe Hogsett, Holcomb said the communication put out by his team is clear but he wants local officials to make decisions based on the data in their community.

Indianapolis is being sued by some bar owners who say the city’s restrictions are unconstitutional and are damaging their businesses.

Holcomb’s Democratic opponent for governor, Dr. Woody Myers, issued a news release late Wednesday afternoon saying that loosening pandemic restrictions are a mistake.

“Moving to Phase 5 is the wrong step — we need more vigilance, not less,” Myers said. “It was only recently that Indiana had the highest one day total of cases reported since the beginning of the pandemic. With the arrival of autumn, public health experts are warning we can soon expect a significant increase of new COVID-19 cases.”

Holcomb’s announcement came as the health department reported 728 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, for a total of 113,337, and 10 more death for a total with 3,305 deaths.

Box urged Hoosiers to ensure they get a flu shot as flu season approaches, as the disease has similar symptoms to COVID-19.

In addition to the move to Stage 5, an additional $25 million is being put towards workforce training, announced Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s commissioner of higher education.

She encouraged Hoosiers to apply because the funding expires at the end of the year.

Cris Johnston, director of the Office of Management and Budget, announced that the deadline for businesses to apply for the state’s Small Business Restart Program has been extended from the end of the month to Nov. 1 in Marion County and Dec. 1 for the rest of the state.

Previously, the program was not available to businesses that have already received federal funding, but that restriction has been removed.

Holcomb’s next COVID-19 update is at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 30 and will be live on WSLM 97.9 FM and WSLM 1220 AM.