INDIANAPOLIS – About two hours before Gov. Eric Holcomb’s weekly pandemic press conference Wednesday, Indiana University Prof. Aaron Carroll took part in a “Keeping IU Healthy” webinar.

He was asked about the 1,700 COVID-19 cases the state reported earlier in the day: “Will the state hover around that or get worse?” Dr. Carroll, of the Indiana University School of Medicine, responded, “I think it will get worse over the next few weeks and then after the election I hope we start ratcheting things back. We can, as we have in the past, limit the spread of disease and make it safer. That will require governments to act and they often act slowly. 

“Even in the bad second wave, Arizona, Florida, Texas they got hold of it. They had to take action. They had to do some unpopular things, but they were able to ratchet it back to achieve a better level of success,” Dr. Carroll continued. “It will take Indiana taking action. I believe they will, it just may be a couple weeks off because the election, frankly, makes it harder to do a lot of stuff. Without laying blame or casting aspersions, ask me again in two weeks.”

Gov. Holcomb was asked by the press about a possible reinstitution of lower stages. The governor became animated, saying, “Stage 5 has zero, nothing to do with any campaign. This has got to do with safely getting back to school, getting this economy reopened safely.”

Another reporter asked him about taking what his Democratic challenger Woody Myers called a “mask suggestion” as opposed to a mask mandate, with sanctions for those not getting with the program.

Holcomb responded, “We’re not living in a police state. Our liberties do need to be protected and I also mentioned they should not infringe or harm anyone else. We can go through why masks are safe. We know that they are. They help you and help your neighbor, someone you may not know or ever see again. The last thing we need to do is go back. The last thing I want to do is go back to a stay at home. When we did, we didn’t shut the state down. We said we’ve got to get our footing. When the first wave came, we’ve got to get our PPE inventory up, we’ve got to have our hospital networks working as one. We have to have the capacity to care. We have that now. We’re proving it works.”

Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reporter Nikki Kelly suggested that the “blanket approach” taken with Holcomb’s “hunkering down” order last March had successfully brought the COVID cases down, only to see the dramatic spikes seen shortly after Holcomb announced Stage 5 in late September.

Holcomb pushed back. “We started with a very targeted approach,” he said. “Marion County was treated very differently, Cass County was treated very differently and throughout the different stages we got our footing and there was no blanket approach. We dealt with this very surgically. Once we had the capacity statewide, then we were able to move statewide to stage 5.”

The elephant in the room has been President Trump, and, to a lesser extent, Vice President Pence. While Holcomb has been ardently consistent once the CDC determined that face masks did, indeed, dramatically help reduce the COVID spread, Trump and Pence have been flagrantly muddled.

Part of Gov. Holcomb’s dilemma is the mixed messaging coming from President Trump, who commands an intensely loyal following in red state Indiana. The president was pressed at his NBC town hall last week on why he is opposed to masks by Savannah Guthrie: “I don’t get it, because you have so much power and influence as president. You could go to your rallies and say, ‘Everyone put on a mask right now.’

At a rally the night before in Florida, the Trump campaign packed a largely maskless crowd into an airport MAGA rally. Trump responded, “No, because I was OK with the masks. I was good with it, but I’ve heard very different stories on masks. A lot of places say different things.” Trump then added (falsely) that the CDC reported “85% of people who wore masks” caught COVID-19. Last month, he said restaurant waitresses don’t like wearing masks as a factor in dismissing their use. 

It begs the question: Who are Trump’s Hoosier supporters going to follow, the president, or the governor?

When the histories of this pandemic are recorded in the not-so-distant future, the tightly packed and largely maskless MAGA rallies will go down in infamy as reckless, super spreader events. 

When I asked him about whether Trump’s inconsistency was creating problems on the homefront, Holcomb said, “Sure.” But he avoided direct criticism of Trump.

This afternoon, Holcomb said he would “likely” join Vice President Pence at a campaign rally at Fort Wayne International Airport.

Even though Pence heads the White House coronavirus task force, he has been wildly inconsistent on masking, just like his boss. When he was with Holcomb at Marion University in July, Pence wore a mask. When he’s with Trump, like the now infamous Rose Garden super spreader event for Judge Amy Coney Barrett or any given MAGA rally, Pence shows a naked face.

When I was with Holcomb on Saturday, we all wore masks the entire time. An aide to the governor had a carton of masks to hand out. At the Sullivan County Lincoln luncheon, about a third of the folks wore masks, but this was at a banquet and many were eating.

Even so, Dr. Carroll called an indoor banquet of 20 people a “dangerous” event.

Holcomb said he will join Pence this afternoon “If it’s safely orchestrated. I likely will. I’m not trying to avoid your question. Obviously if we do, we’ll follow all the Secret Service protocol. I’ll be tested before I go. I’ll be masked up. If I can’t be distanced, I’ll be masked up, just like I was the last time I was with the vice president at Marian University.”

Folks will be watching.

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana.