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Ask The Mayor: Bloomington's Hamilton On Long Early Voting Lines, COVID Case Increases

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Unknown Speaker
Here we are the third week of October and as always, Bloomington Mayor john Hamilton joins us via zoom. Hello, Mr. Mayor, how are you today?

Unknown Speaker
Good to be with you, Joe. I'm fine. I hope you are well, too. Here we are into the fourth quarter and in fall weather and nice to see you again.

Unknown Speaker
Same here. Well, let's just start like we always do COVID-19 state increase. deaths have more than doubled in less than a month approaching 4000 in the state and seemed like a lot of this began when Governor Holcomb lifted nearly all the restrictions on businesses and crowd sizes a few weeks ago. Is there a correlation there? Is the governor on the right track with what's happening now in the state?

Unknown Speaker
Well, it's a great question, Joe. And we don't really know is the is the short answer. And I'm certainly I'm not an epidemiologist or a health expert. I kind of think about this, like, what we're doing is we're trying to calibrate a multivariable thermostat. From the from our side, from the public and health side, we're trying to control, set the thermostat with things like mask orders and gathering sizes and stay at home orders and all these things, calibrate all that so that our temperature our health stays appropriate. And we don't know for sure. Where we are I do think the state is moving too fast, and it's going with that thermostat adjustment. They've loosened things too quickly. And the state is really experiencing some very serious health negative consequences. You mentioned the deaths. You know, we've seen the very dramatic rise in case numbers on the contrary, in Monroe County. Over the last six eight weeks, we've we've seen pretty good numbers relative quite good relative the state and and I you testing continues to show progress. It shows some some challenges at the beginning, particularly with Greek Greek organizations congregate living but you know, our numbers in this county are significantly better than the state and many counties around us. So we can't be sure. But I think locally, we're we're probably going to want to stay the course we have, we have tightened our gathering limits. We had a mask order earlier, and we're leaving it on. And until we see a clear evidence that we're that we're not going to have a rise. So we need to stay with that in my view.

Unknown Speaker
Well, I want to bring up this headline we had on our new site yesterday, Monroe County COVID-19 positivity rate has grown 100% through October. So it was 1.5%, October 1, and Monday 2.9%. Back in September 6, it was 11.8. So obviously, if you look at the bigger picture, it's it's still good, but it's starting to increase again. Monroe County did stay with the current restrictions, but the numbers are still rising. So why why is that happening?

Unknown Speaker
Well, again, Joe, we don't know for sure. I mean, I think the big picture is, while we had 35,000 or more students coming back to campus in this community in August, which was of great concern, how we would handle how that would, what effect that would have, we did see some rise from that. But with the controls that we've got in place, we've we've definitely done better than the state, and certainly better than we feared we might have done with that kind of influx. Now, the hospital has seen some significant increase, though much of that is from out of county, folks, as you indicated, some of the background numbers have gone up, but they're overall way better than the state and they're in they're better. You know, they're they're not nearly where we were, we're continuing to do testing in our sewer system with that experimental testing, I use, of course, is doing an enormous amount of testing. And those sources help us try to identify threats, it is possible that we'd have to take some more controlling steps that is changed the size of gathering limits, again, reduce them, or take other steps if we need to. But for right now, if we look at the basic data, including how the school corporations are doing, how companies are doing, how the overall background incidents, testing shows us, we're, we're we're doing okay, but we need to be very vigilant for it.

Unknown Speaker
So we have a number of questions of people writing in and this is a great follow up from Vicki. She wants to know where our positive covid 19 cases coming from? Is it widespread? Is it localized in certain areas? And I know you just mentioned about the sewer testing too. So is there any data about where these cases are coming from?

Unknown Speaker
So we know some things for example, we know that there was a real surge of cases in congregate living settings in their Greek houses. Those who frequented Greek houses early in the in the semester. We know we have more young people getting cases here than we did before we got a lot more young people here, we do identify some physical locations in the city. Through the sewer testing, though they're not precise. They're kind of general areas of the city. And we're still really, frankly, trying to understand the science and that again, I'm not a scientist, people are trying to understand the science in that. The short answer is we we really don't we do contact tracing to find it's typically an incident that happened. I do believe we we have pretty good evidence that suggests there is not a lot of transmission happening either on campus for Indiana University or our school corporations, it seems. So it seems to be more happening in household or, or other gatherings that are that are happening, which is one reason we want to keep that 15 person limit on private social gatherings really not do what the state has done. And the governor has opened wide the the door for a whole bunch more gatherings and keep the limits on bars and restaurants and seated only service and those kinds of things.

Unknown Speaker
Barbara has a good question, too. She wants to know if we're suffering more because people aren't applying the social distancing role, or is it being in large crowds? And is there a target age?

Unknown Speaker
Well, we do, we do believe again, we're trying to dial this multi factor thermostat to control this, we do believe that mask wearing significantly helps. The evidence shows that we do believe that. So physical distancing six feet or more, definitely helps reduce the transmission of the virus. We also do believe in science suggests that super spreader events, gatherings of people are a really bad idea. That's where you get real transmission of this virus. So if you don't have to gather, don't do it. And if you do gather, do it in ways that protect from the spread of virus with masks with distancing with a lot of cleaning. And that's what our schools are doing, for example, and other settings. And what our health department department does if you ask to hold 100 person indoor banquet, that they make sure you've really got strong controls on that.

Unknown Speaker
You mentioned the schools. JOHN has a question about the IU student community, is it being separated out from the rest of the county when the schools make decisions related to their status level? Or is the IU student community just considered part of the community?

Unknown Speaker
Well, I don't know that I can answer exactly for that the school Corporation's rich and Blaine Glassman, Monroe County, consolidated schools, community schools, definitely look at a lot of different sources of data. I'm sure they do look at the IU data separately from the health data. But we got to remember the state health data incorporates all of the testing and information from IU. And if you're worried about background and community and community spread, you've got to pay attention to everybody in the community. So I imagine they look at that most closely. I'm sure they're also looking at contact tracing to see if they have an incidence at a high school or where that came from, did it come from a student's house home? Or did it come in in the building at the school Corporation? And that's what contact tracing really helps you do?

Unknown Speaker
I'm not sure if you have this in front of you. But Michael writes in wants to know how many individuals in Bloomington apply for unemployment benefits, and have yet to receive any or some and I know we've done some reporting on this. Michael, if you search our site that the state was backlog for a while but have have at least reported to us that they've caught up? I don't know if you've heard anything, Mayor.

Unknown Speaker
Joe, I don't I don't have specific updated numbers. I know that we had thousands of Bloomington residents apply for unemployment insurance and and the particular cares act in federal support $600 and other supports. I know our unemployment rate has come down significantly, but I don't know, for example, are there are there and how many residents applied and either were rejected or or didn't hear yet? It is of great concern that we particularly you know, we talked about pandemic fatigue of doing the you know, the economic fatigue of households and individuals who are just trying to get through. Jobs are coming back, but they're they're only coming back in certain areas in certain ways and other sectors are really hit hard still. So it's really important that we get more federal support. I'm very frustrated that the President and Congress haven't been able to get that together to provide the next wave of that support. That's so important.

Unknown Speaker
This is an interesting question from Audrey. And I know you're on course the committee with all the new sites that are being the rapid or the new downtown site that has been developed. And she wants to know, will the new site offer rapid test? And are there any places in Bloomington for rapid tests?

Unknown Speaker
rapid test, meaning kind of the 30 minute turnaround? Yeah, they're referring to the, the the community based site, which is now run by optim. And we're going to add a second site very shortly, does not do that kind of 30 minute test, it's less accurate. We do the testing that takes 24 to 48 hours, but gives you a better result better result. I know I you has used the rapid test, they used it when students were coming back. Some places have have used that more. Again, I'm not an epidemiologist or scientists that caveat, but they'll believe it is accurate. So I'm sure there are some places that do rapid testing in town, private labs and others or you can do some online. But be careful because some some of those are just not that accurate. And one of the things we want to remind people is you kind of have to act as if you are infectious all the time, you just don't know even if you get a negative test, I had to negative test but found out later I was sick, you can get negative tests and still be infectious, you can feel fine and not even see any reason to get a test and still be infectious. So that's one of the tricky things is you kind of have to live your life as if you might be infectious any day. And that means keeping those distances in masking. And the tests obviously help you if you need treatment or contact tracing. But we really need to, we really need to act as if we might be infectious at any time.

Unknown Speaker
This is a great follow up question a different angle from Dan who writes in? Why does maske order exempt religious services where there is singing or chanting? The CDC says that six feet distance is not sufficient for singing?

Unknown Speaker
Well, it's a good question that's comes from the state rule. We did not put in a separate rule locally on that, though, I will say I mean, I've met with faith leaders some months ago, and they were extremely conservative and careful about exposing their members to this disease. Many of them are elderly and have some risk factors. So while the rule at the state level does, I think you're right to ask is that really the smartest thing? I think in practice, most religious communities are being very careful. Many churches, I know mine is still not having in person services, because you're right singing and speaking particularly loudly, is a way that the virus is spread more more easily. So it's something to be very careful about. If I were governor, I'm not sure I would have that order. But that's what it is for the state. And we've I think our local faith communities are really doing a very careful job to try to protect everybody.

Unknown Speaker
Laura from Bloomington wants to know, why didn't the city set any official trick or treating hours or guidelines she's concerned, kids will come whenever they want, not know how to trick or treat safely? And if the city can enforce safety rules and protocols for other activities, why not trick or treating?

Unknown Speaker
Well, it's a good question. And we talked about that in the city, we basically felt that this year's Halloween needed to be driven by the health department and health concerns. It is true. Traditionally, the city has set hours and we've we've had people ask us to change the day to be observed of Halloween. And I typically haven't done that. But look, it's a free country, you can you can celebrate Halloween, as you choose under the guidelines that are there. But we've encouraged and the health department is encouraged everybody to follow the CDC guidelines, which suggests that door to door trick or treating is not a smart thing to do this year. Given that the CDC recommends against that door to door trick or treating, we didn't think we should set hours for that, frankly, because we don't want to encourage it and say it's a good thing to do between x and y. each household and some neighborhoods and some streets are going to be talking to each other and figure out what their what they feel comfortable with. There's so many factors. Who is in your household? How much risk do you have? What age are your kids, you know, how much interaction Have you had, and I would just encourage people to really read those CDC guidelines, which recommend against door to door trick or treating or to do it very carefully. So that's why the city we didn't want to suggest that it's a good time to go trick or treating. Because that's not really what the health experts tell us in

Unknown Speaker
the county I believe did set sometimes. Six

Unknown Speaker
I believe the county has outlined suggested sometimes and you certainly can abide by those if you want. We're all members Have the county who live who live in the city or outside the city? You can you can choose to do that. But I think you know, just be sure to read the CDC guidelines and think about your own situation and in comparing the risks and benefits and maybe some options this year for other kinds of celebrations.

Unknown Speaker
One other question from and this is kind of leaving the subject of COVID right now, but just wanted an update on annexation?

Unknown Speaker
Well, on annexation, we're really just awaiting a court decision out of the Indiana Supreme Court arguments were made in January this year. And it's sitting in front of the Supreme Court to make a decision on how we'll proceed till we hear from them. Really, nothing happens. And then when we hear from them, it'll depend upon what they tell us. And that could happen tomorrow, or it could happen months from now. We just don't know when we'll hear from them.

Unknown Speaker
Early voting been huge here in Monroe County. I've seen messages from 30 to though 90 minute weights this past week or so are you getting any reports and how that process is moving along? And what's your take on these 90 minute weights to vote?

Unknown Speaker
Well, I understand something in the order of 1000 people a day are voting, it's it's terrific to see the interest in actions and I encourage everybody to vote, it is frustrating that people have to wait to vote. That should not be the case anywhere in America. It should not be the case here that it's a long wait to vote, we should make voting as easy and as as efficient as soon as humanly possible. And I know people are working hard to make that the case. But we should not take we should take long lines as a council that says something's not working right here. Because we should all be able to vote easily. We should be encouraged to vote. I'm sure there are better times and worst times early in the mornings probably good. And the early voting runs through the Monday I believe of election weeks on November 2, you can check the site the exact times and locations downtown at 401. North Morton I mean, Morton, and Madison and six is where the voting center is. So do that. And please do vote whether you're doing by absentee whether you're doing early in person, or whether you're doing it on Tuesday, November 3 from 6am to 6pm. But it is frustrating. It's frustrating to see long lines, that should not be the case anywhere in America.

Unknown Speaker
I know we're getting close to about a little bit more than five minutes with our time with you. I do want it to follow up and ask about the canopy of lights next month, is that going to be virtual? Is that going to be is that going to happen?

Unknown Speaker
Well, I understand the big event will not happen in person. That's that's an event that's run by downtown Bloomington unique and collaborating with the courthouse and such. I think I expect we'll have an event and I'm ready to participate The day after Thanksgiving. It's always such a wonderful event. I believe the lights will happen. But I don't think we're going to have thousands of people gathering down on the Courthouse Square. It's just not smart to do that. We're actually kind of concerned about Thanksgiving as a holiday, that could be a real spreader event. So we want everyone to be very careful and think hard about that. And again, kind of you have to assume that anyone can be infectious at any time without knowing it and behave accordingly.

Unknown Speaker
I want to end with you know, Indiana football host Penn State Saturday. There's no fans no tailgating. How should local Hoosiers celebrate this annual fall tradition of college football in Bloomington? With with the pandemic in full gear?

Unknown Speaker
Yes, I actually joined a letter from mayor's from a bunch of big 10 cities to the Athletic Conference encouraging real care and collaboration on this to be sure we don't cause backsliding and spreading with this. So look, most of us are having to think about the pod we live with whether it's our household or close friends who are we exposing ourselves to regularly in order to do live the life that we want to but really trying to limit that exposure to others. a football game should not be an excuse to dramatically increase your risk of Please take care. You can enjoy things with your close pod members, household members. Of course, if you're going to be gathering with others, you should try to do it outside you should stay separated. I walked by a party the other night as I was walking through town and saw a bunch of cars parked and I was a little concerned. And then I could see down the driveway there was a big circle of 15 people that look like who were six feet apart each and I'm like okay they're doing it right there mass they were they were gathering, but just be careful because we easily could backslide. We've seen that around the country. So join the football, watch it on TV. Stay with your pod your household and really try to avoid causing backsliding here.

Unknown Speaker
But will the city be patrolling or be ready to respond to these gatherings that were you know, a small group of 10 and then all of a sudden you know or up to 80 by Saturday afternoon.

Unknown Speaker
We We are regularly watching for that every day every evening. We appreciate reports. If you see large gatherings that don't look appropriate, we need to hear about them. You sometimes can hear them from noise, but if you see a large gathering, absolutely, please let us know. And we will be watching for that along with the IU police department and others

Unknown Speaker
do have just two minutes left and I just wanted to give you the last word. Do you have any announcements or anything else that you'd like to say that's going on?

Unknown Speaker
Well, thanks. The hospital reuse work goes on. We had a big public meeting last week continuing to think about those 24 acres that the Bloomington hospital is a relocate to the side will open up so please check out that on our website if you want to give feedback. And we also just recently announced we're going to continue the Kirkwood pilot we actually have decided based upon the feedback from the public and the and the and the restaurant tours to keep the two blocks of Kirkwood closed basically 24 seven between now and the end of the year that lets those are the western blocks between Kirkwood and on Kirkwood between walnut and Washington. And then I think between Is it done in grant or or Indiana and done I forgot I can't remember which of the two but they will be allowing those restaurants to put in a little a little better facilities for the colder weather so people can enjoy that. So check that out downtown you might enjoy what the Kirkwood nightlife is a safe, safer outdoor dining experience.

Unknown Speaker
Alright, and like to thank all the people that with a lot of questions

Unknown Speaker
today that wrote in and if you're watching this and like to ask the mayor question, it's news at Indiana public media.org. Thank you very much. We'll see you I guess after the election and have a lot to talk about next month.

Unknown Speaker
I bet we will Joe nice to see everybody stay safe.

Unknown Speaker
Thank you very much.
John Hamilton

Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton (Zoom)

COVID-19 cases are increasing and a number of your questions asked about where cases are originating, rapid test availability, and religious service mask exceptions. We also talk early voting wait times, the canopy of lights celebration, halloween, and more.

On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton addresses these issues and more during a Zoom event Tuesday. Listen to the full conversation with Indiana Newsdesk anchor Joe Hren by clicking on the play button above, or read some of the questions and answers below. A portion of this segment airs 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. Wednesday on WFIU. Here are some highlights.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Hren: I want to read this headline we had on our new site yesterday, "Monroe County COVID-19 positivity rate has grown 100% through October." So it was 1.5% October 1 and Monday 2.9%. Back in September 6, it was 11.8%. So obviously, if you look at the bigger picture, it's better, but starting to increase again. Monroe County did stay with the previous restrictions, but the numbers are still rising. Why is that happening?

Hamilton: Well, Joe, we don't know for sure. I mean, I think the big picture is, while we had 35,000 or more students coming back to campus in this community in August, which was of great concern, we did see some rise from that.

But with the controls that we've got in place, we've definitely done better than the state, and certainly better than we feared we might have done with that kind of influx. Now, the hospital has seen some significant increase, though much of that is from out of county. We're continuing to do testing in our sewer system with that experimental testing. IU, of course, is doing an enormous amount of testing and those sources help us try to identify threats.

It is possible that we'd have to take some more controlling steps that is changing the size of gathering limits, again, reduce them, or take other steps if we need to. But for right now, if we look at the basic data, including how the school corporations are doing, how companies are doing, how the overall background incidents, testing shows us, we're doing okay, but we need to be very vigilant for it.

Vicki by email: Where are our positive COVID-19 cases coming from? Is it widespread? Is it localized in certain areas?

Hamilton: So we know that there was a real surge of cases in congregate living settings in Greek houses. Those who frequented Greek houses early in the semester. We know we have more young people getting cases here than we did before. We do identify some physical locations in the city through the sewer testing, though they're not precise. They're kind of general areas of the city.

And we're still really, frankly, trying to understand the science. The short answer is we really don't. We do contact tracing to find it's typically an incident that happened. I do believe we have pretty good evidence that suggests there is not a lot of transmission happening either on campus for Indiana University or our school corporations, it seems. So it seems to be more happening in household or other gatherings that are happening, which is one reason we want to keep that 15 person limit on private social gatherings - really not do what the state has done.

Barbara by email: Are we suffering more because people aren't applying the social distancing role, or is it being in large crowds? And is there a target age?

Hamilton: Well, we're trying to dial this multi factor thermostat to control this, we do believe that mask wearing significantly helps. The evidence shows that we do believe that. So physical distancing six feet or more, definitely helps reduce the transmission of the virus. We also do believe in science suggests that super spreader events, gatherings of people are a really bad idea.

John by email: Is the IU student community being separated out from the rest of the county when the schools make decisions related to their status level?

Hamilton: Well, I don't know that I can answer exactly for that. The schools definitely look at a lot of different sources of data. I'm sure they do look at the IU data separately from the health data. But we got to remember the state health data incorporates all of the testing and information from IU. And if you're worried about background and community and community spread, you've got to pay attention to everybody in the community. So I imagine they look at that most closely.

Audrey via email: You may have information about the new downtown COVID testing site that is being developed. Will the new site offer rapid tests? And are there any places in Bloomington for rapid tests?

Hamilton: We're going to add a second site very shortly, that does not do that kind of 30 minute test, it's less accurate. We do the testing that takes 24 to 48 hours, but gives you a better result. I know IU has used the rapid test, they used it when students were coming back.

I'm sure there are some places that do rapid testing in town, private labs and others, or you can do some online. But be careful because some of those are just not that accurate. And one of the things we want to remind people is you kind of have to act as if you are infectious all the time, you just don't know even if you get a negative test. I had two negative test, but found out later I was sick. You can get negative tests and still be infectious, you can feel fine and not even see any reason to get a test and still be infectious.

Dan via email: Why does the mask order exempt religious services where there is singing or chanting? The CDC says that six feet distance is not sufficient for singing?

Hamilton: Well, it's a good question that comes from the state rule. We did not put in a separate rule locally on that, though, I will say I've met with faith leaders some months ago, and they were extremely conservative and careful about exposing their members to this disease. Many of them are elderly and have some risk factors. So while the rule at the state level does, I think you're right to ask is that really the smartest thing?

I think in practice, most religious communities are being very careful. Many churches, I know mine is still not having in person services, because you're right - singing and speaking particularly loudly is a way that the virus is spread more more easily. So it's something to be very careful about. If I were governor, I'm not sure I would have that order. But that's what it is for the state.

Laura via email: Why didn't the city set any official trick or treating hours or guidelines? I'm concerned kids will come whenever they want, not know how to trick or treat safely. If the city can enforce safety rules and protocols for other activities, why not trick or treating?

Hamilton: Well, it's a good question. We basically felt that this year's Halloween needed to be driven by the health department and health concerns. It is true. Traditionally, the city has set hours and we've had people ask us to change the day to be observed of Halloween. And I typically haven't done that. But look, it's a free country, you can you can celebrate Halloween as you choose under the guidelines that are there. But we've encouraged and the health department has encouraged everybody to follow the CDC guidelines, which suggests that door to door trick or treating is not a smart thing to do this year.

Given that the CDC recommends against that door to door trick or treating, we didn't think we should set hours for that, frankly, because we don't want to encourage it and say it's a good thing to do between x and y. Each household and some neighborhoods and some streets are going to be talking to each other and figure out what their what they feel comfortable with.

Hren: Early voting has been huge here in Monroe County. I've heard waits from 30 to 90 minutes. Are you getting any reports and how that process is moving along? And what's your take on these 90 minute waits to vote?

Hamilton: Well, I understand something in the order of 1,000 people a day are voting. It's terrific to see the interest in actions and I encourage everybody to vote, it is frustrating that people have to wait to vote. That should not be the case anywhere in America. We should make voting as easy and as efficient as soon as humanly possible. And I know people are working hard to make that the case.

Hren: I do want to ask about the canopy of lights next month, is that going to be virtual?

Hamilton: Well, I understand the big event will not happen in person. That's an event that's run by downtown Bloomington collaborating with the courthouse and such. I think I expect we'll have an event and I'm ready to participate the day after Thanksgiving. It's always such a wonderful event. I believe the lights will happen. But I don't think we're going to have thousands of people gathering down on the Courthouse Square. It's just not smart to do that. We're actually kind of concerned about Thanksgiving as a holiday, that could be a real spreader event. So we want everyone to be very careful and think hard about that. And again, you have to assume that anyone can be infectious at any time without knowing it and behave accordingly.

For the latest news and resources about COVID-19, bookmark our Coronavirus In Indiana page here.

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