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As the Allen County Board of Health sought guidance to recommend limiting crowd size at public gatherings in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Komets Hockey President Michael Franke indicated he was not going to cancel games.

But in an example of the fluidity of the situation, by the end of the meeting Franke's decision was a moot point, because the Komets' league, the ECHL, had already suspended play for the 2019-20 season due to COVID-19 concerns.

The three-hour standing-room only meeting was set up for the board to hear public comment so they could come up with recommendations for schools, venues, restaurants, churches, and any other group that gathers en masse and is concerned about the spread of COVID-19.

Suggestions for schools included closing schools if three or more students test positive, or if more than 50% of the schools in the state close.

Prevention measures were also suggested: keeping students 6 feet away from each other, known as social distancing, stopping bus service, because sometimes two or three kids have to share a bench seat, having lunches brought to classrooms instead of going to a cafeteria, and eliminating recesses.

But Phil Downs, Southwest Allen County Schools superintendent, said some of those situations aren't practical, such as keeping kids 6 feet apart. He also said students need recess as a pressure release.

A group of school officials that has been meeting to prepare for the COVID-19 virus plans to meet before Monday to solidify their recommendations to the board.

One of the biggest issues to be determined is defining what a mass gathering or large group is. Seattle has banned gatherings of more than 250 people. Some board members liked that; one thought it should be lower.  A suggestion was made to limit crowds to half of what the maximum occupancy is, but Memorial Coliseum General Manager Randy Brown noted that half the maximum occupancy of the arena would still be 6,000 people.

However, on the same day the Allen County board deliberated about crowd size, the State Department of Health issued its own guidance for gatherings.

"Non-essential gatherings of 250 people or more should be postponed or canceled," according to the document, which can be accessed at https://www.in.gov/isdh/files/031220_GatheringGuidanceFINAL.pdf.

It goes on to say, "Smaller, non-essential gatherings held in venues which do not allow social distancing of six (6) feet per person should be postponed or canceled." Go to the website for more information on this subject.

McMahan reminded people that those with COVID-19 could be asymptomatic for several days, but already shedding the virus. So someone who feels fine could unwittingly attend a public event and be spreading the virus to others.

Restaurateur James Khan told the board social distancing (keeping people 6 feet apart) in a restaurant would be hard to do. He also said margins are extremely tight in his business, and he doesn't know of many restaurants that could survive a two-week closure.

McMahan echoed a theme she has repeated often during this crisis, suggesting Khan "come up with a new way to do it." One suggestion if the restaurant had to close to the public was to offer meals via delivery. 

Khan said if the restaurants had to close for three months, their 250 employees wouldn't be getting paychecks. But McMahan said the overall goal is to protect the health of the community and keep the healthcare system from becoming overburdened. "Dead people don't eat out," she said.

Beth Dlug, director of elections, is concerned about the virus spreading at polling spots. Indiana's primary is May 5. Suggestions were made to use social distancing at the polls and hand sanitizer at the voting machines. Absentee voting by mail is an option for those with extenuating health conditions who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

Representatives from faith-based organizations specifically want to know the definition of what constitutes a large group. Social distancing or live-streaming services could be an option.

Long-term care facilities also want guidance. Board member and CEO of Byron Health Center Deb Lambert said one option would be prohibiting all visitors, but allowing family members of those who are dying to come in a special door. Nobody would have to die alone, she said.

After listening to all these groups the board decided it couldn't vote on recommendations that day, even though the community is clamoring for answers. 

So the subgroups and the board have the weekend to clarify their ideas. The board will reconvene at 5:45 pm Monday in the basement of Citizens Square to take into account the groups' recommendations before it solidifies its recommendations and votes on them. 

The situation is urgent, but they don't want to rush their decisions. 

Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan said currently five people in Allen County have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and have been tested. The results are not back yet.

As of March 12 there were 12 confirmed cases, with the latest case being reported in St. Joseph County. No one in Indiana has died from COVID-19. The Indiana State Department of Health has tested 64 people.

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