INDIANAPOLIS (WLS) -- Indiana moved into the final phase of reopening Saturday.
Merrillville resident Nikki Laster said she could not be happier about the reopening as she enjoyed the relaxed restrictions over breakfast with a friend.
"It was great. It was one thing to have to wear these masks all day, but to get out and smell the fresh air and see the scenery, it was great," Laster said.
Nearly three months after suspending Indiana's reopening plan, Gov. Eric Holcomb on Wednesday announced the state will move to the final phase -- Stage 5.
A statewide mask mandate will remain in place until at least October 17.
Hoosier Mike Lucko said its about time the state moved to the final stage of reopening.
"I'm not a fan of it . I don't think the masks do what they are supposed to do. When other people get freaked out because you're not wearing a mask, I think they are ignorant because they don't know what they are talking about completely," Lucko said.
The final phase means that fitness centers can fully open along with restaurants and bars, but with guidelines in place.
The move came right on time for Sophia's Famous Pancakes in Schererville.
Family-owner for 18 years, Bill Lalezas said his newest location on US-30 has really struggled.
Relaxed restrictions means Lalezas can operate his 240 sear eatery at capacity but still allow for social distancing.
"We've spaced them apart. We've got glass partitions everywhere. We were all very concerned at the beginning. I think we are ready to move on at this point," he said,
While most said they looked forward to taking another step toward to what feels like "normal," Yolanda Bracey and her family remained cautiously optimistic.
"It just depends on your comfort level I guess. I think we're going to Phase 5 too soon, but we shall see," Bracey said.
The reopening comes as Indiana reports 1,155 new COVID-19 cases and 11 deaths Saturday.
The Indiana State Department of Health confirmed a total of 116,549 positive coronavirus cases in the state, including 3,351 deaths Saturday.
In the last 24 hours, officials have conducted 27,028 tests, with a seven-day positivity rate of 4.1%.
Moving into the final phase means restaurants, bars and fitness centers can fully open, but with guidelines in place.
Gatherings of more than 500 people will still need the state's approval and Indiana's statewide mask mandate will remain in effect.
It was a quiet Friday afternoon at one Indiana gym, with few people are getting their workouts in. A few more were seen shooting hoops nearby.
Most out and about in the state say they feel encouraged the state is moving to Phase 5 and opening up a bit more starting this weekend, however none say it suggests COVID-19 is no longer a threat.
"It's still out there but as long as we are maintain our social distancing and everything, we should be fine," said Giselle Iniguez.
"I think it's a good idea as long as we follow proper protocols," said Tommy Myers.
The new guidelines will allow more capacity in workout classes. The basketball gym will also be open to play games and scrimmage rather than just shooting around individually.
The Hammond YMCA has stringent COVID-19 protocols in place, including a thermal temperature reading as you enter the door, as well as social distancing. The rules are something the director says will not change once the new phase begins Saturday.
"A lot of our safety will still stay the same," said YMCA Executive Director Emily Packard.
While restaurants and bars will now be able to increase capacity, most say they will continue to encourage social distancing, and masks will still be mandatory for the time being.
Nevertheless most are looking forward to taking another step toward normalcy.
"It's kind of like a reward, you know. We did good, we listened Indiana, so this is it now," said Patrick O'Hara.
Indiana to track COVID-19 in schools with new data dashboard
A new online tool designed to help track COVID-19 cases in Indiana schools is expected to be released by the end of the month.
The data dashboard will reflect the new and cumulative numbers of positive COVID-19 cases among students, teachers, and in a given school. It will be updated on a weekly basis, said Dr. Kristina Box, commissioner of the Indiana State Department of Health.
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While the school virus dashboard hasn't yet launched, state officials provided the first historical snapshot of school COVID-19 cases Wednesday. About 2,000 schools, over 70% of those across the state, have already contributed data, Box said. Initial numbers indicate more than 1,100 schools reported no COVID-19 cases, and more than 900 reported at least one case.
In the positive cases logged so far, nearly 1,900 students, teachers and other school employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the new school year started this fall. Students make up the majority of the reported cases, with 1,348 cases, with another 274 cases reported among the state's teachers and 276 cases in other staff members.
Case totals are likely to increase in the coming days as more schools submit their data, Box said. But because the reporting by schools is voluntary, the state dashboard numbers won't fully capture cases. If school participation becomes an issue, however, Box said the state may consider making it mandatory for district leaders to report their data.
"The purpose is not to stigmatize a school or to penalize them," Box said during a Sept. 9 news conference. "The purpose is not to mandate whether schools are hosting in-person classes or going virtual because those decisions are made locally."
The state reported Wednesday that 94% of schools are now offering at least some degree of in-person instruction. With school leaders and local health departments in control of deciding when school buildings should close or reopen as the coronavirus pandemic continues, Box added that the creation of the new school dashboard is intended help guide districts as they weigh decisions about their operational plans.
Still, the case counts reported by the tracker have been difficult for the public to see, until now. Currently, schools are required to report positive cases to their local health department, but it's up to school officials to determine if other students and families in the district are notified of positive cases.
As early as next week, the school data will be available to the public and searchable by individual school. Schools reporting fewer than five positive cases will have their data suppressed to protect privacy.
Once the dashboard is released, Indiana will join more than a dozen other states that publicly provide numbers of COVID-19 cases in schools.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.