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By Tyler Buchanan

Ohio Capital Journal

This is not the story you were supposed to read in this space.

This being a news outlet devoted to Ohio Statehouse coverage, I was supposed to write a preview of the State Senate’s 32nd District primary race. That area features a unique pocket of the state poised between the notions of what it once was and what it could become. 

One of the candidates is from a small town named Rome. I intended to squeeze in, the way we clever writers do, a reference to the ancient Roman Senate. You, a reader of politics, would have smiled and perhaps learned a little bit about how this Northeast Ohio legislative race has broader statewide implications. 

All well and good, except that everything has changed. As I write this, there are five Ohioans who have tested positive for the COVID-19, known colloquially as the coronavirus. 

We now understand that figure is just a mirage. The initial Ohioans who contracted COVID-19 have stories and timelines which mark how they likely got it. More alarming is that two subsequent cases do not; they have no known connections to the first three and live a significant distance away from them.

This is, according to Ohio Health Department Director Amy Acton, evidence of “community spread.” It has very serious implications. At a news conference on Thursday, Acton stated that 1% of Ohioans may already be carrying the virus. 

That’s 117,000 people. 

To be sure, not all who contract the virus will suffer great medical harm. But community spread leaves vulnerable populations  particularly the elderly  susceptible to even bigger risk of illness. 

How quickly things change. A few days ago, Gov. Mike DeWine suggested that mass public gatherings should be postponed. The Columbus Blue Jackets hockey team responded, somewhat preposterously in retrospect, that the team would still host a game on Thursday with spectators because of the arena’s quality air ventilation. 

A day later, the Blue Jackets made plans to host the game without a crowd present. A day after that, the entire National Hockey League suspended operations … as did the MLB, the NBA, the NCAA basketball tournaments, all Ohio high school postseason games, and concerts, and everything else you can think of. Even the local fire department in Coalton, Ohio (population 470) canceled its bingo outing. 

On Thursday, DeWine and Acton declared a ban on mass gatherings in Ohio of more than 100 people. It was also announced that K-12 schools would go on “extended spring break” at the close of school next Monday. Visits to nursing homes and prisons are out. 

Society, by and large, is being put on hold.

There is also that primary election I mentioned, scheduled for next Tuesday, March 17. 

Earlier in the week, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose announced plans to relocate polling places that are inside nursing homes. The initial number of affected places was said to be 75. Then the number increased to 125, then to 140. Now it’s up over 150 and still rising. The list has expanded to include other types of locations, including a school and a mental health clinic. 

The Columbus Dispatch reported that elections officials around the state are “frantically” searching for new pollworkers. There appears to be a shortage, with many existing pollworkers who are older deciding to stay away from the Election Day crowds.  

Besides the confusion of the moving polling places, there is the issue of parents having their children home for the first day off school that very Tuesday. Voter turnout will most certainly be affected. Oh, and the time to mail-in ballots or early vote is already almost over. 

The prudent, proactive steps taken by Ohio leaders has caught many throughout the nation by surprise. Many are beginning to fully comprehend what we’re dealing with, but I’m struck by others on social media who reacted Thursday with something along the lines of: “Whoa, check out this news in Ohio about the virus spreading!”

This seems to be entirely missing the point of Acton’s wake-up call. This scale is beyond borders. It’s no longer a puzzle game to determine which specific person has been in contact with which other person. That isn’t how community spread works. 

None of this is to say that people should unnecessarily freak out. I do hope, though, the troubling statistics presented by Acton and others will snap people out of their sense of complacency. We have reached a new normal.

DeWine predicted that the coming weeks and months would be “a gauntlet,” but one that could be handled by Ohioans acting responsibly and working together.

“We’ve got to get through that gauntlet,” DeWine said, “without losing too many of us.”

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism. Read more Ohio Capital Journal stories here.