By Tyler Buchanan

Ohio Capital Journal

On Monday, Gov. Mike DeWine made his position on wearing masks at reopened businesses very clear: “No mask, no work, no service, no exception.”

As it turned out, there was an exception: some people being “offended” by that mandate.

The result was a complete reversal on Tuesday. DeWine announced his administration would not require any customer or worker to wear face coverings when businesses reopen in May after all.

This change followed DeWine getting blasted by the Republican Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives. He also heard personally from at least one Republican state senator who attacked his mask decision.

At his daily press conference Tuesday, though, DeWine cited only criticism from unnamed citizens who rejected his mandate.

“Within the last 24 hours it’s really become clear to me that a mandatory mask requirement … for people who are shopping, going into a retail business is offensive to some of our fellow Ohioans,” DeWine said.

Dr. Amy Acton defended the reversal on Tuesday. After calling on Ohioans to “respect the virus,” she said: “I support the fact that we are not mandating wearing a face covering or a mask, but I strongly suggest we do.”

The governor was later pressed to describe the “medical reason” for not requiring Ohioans to wear masks. In a winding answer, DeWine repeated that his decision was based on caring for critics’ feelings about the order, but did not mention anything regarding personal health.

“I heard from a lot of different people who felt that ‘I may wear a mask or I may not wear a mask, but the government should not be telling me what to do,’” DeWine said. “And so, we believe that in almost every case it is safer for everyone if both people wear a mask. But we also know that this was offensive and people looked at this and they said, ‘that’s one government mandate too far.”

This response to criticism is in sharp contrast to the actions taken earlier by DeWine and Acton during this pandemic. Over the past two months, they have combined to issue government orders restricting everything from public gatherings to elective surgeries. Their last-minute decision to close public polling places led to primary election voting being extended. Their March 22 decision to shutter “unessential” businesses have led nearly 1 million Ohioans to file for unemployment.

Through it all, DeWine and Acton have resisted urges to make decisions based on public pressure. They have repeatedly projected empathy for those affected. Still, the message has been that all these consequences do not outweigh the need to take drastic actions in protecting public health.

That changed on Tuesday.

DeWine did not give much hint as to any deeper reasoning — politically or otherwise — behind his reversal. It is true that a similar mask mandate in Connecticut resulted in the governor getting sued, but DeWine did not reference any potential legal risks.

Nor did DeWine cite political pressure from his own party, though he did address his relationship with the Ohio General Assembly at a separate point in Tuesday’s press conference:

On Monday morning, Ohio House Republicans publicized their own “Open Ohio Responsibly Framework” which called for all businesses to reopen as soon as possible without any mask mandate. A total of 35 lawmakers have endorsed the plan, including most members of the House’s Economic Recovery Task Force.

DeWine announced later that day he would open some businesses in a staggered May timeline and would require face coverings. This didn’t set well with Speaker of the House Larry Householder, who blasted DeWine in a Monday evening statement to reporters.

“There is a tremendous amount of frustration from the majority of members in the Ohio House,” the Speaker began, criticizing the staggered timeline.

“The House has asked to work with the (DeWine) administration to come up with common sense solutions to resolve this, but have been met with deaf ears,” Householder continued. “Ohio’s three branches of government are to be separate but equal. Our members feel disrespected that their opinions have been largely disregarded by the Administration.”

DeWine also spoke Monday evening with State Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, who told him she strongly disagreed with a government mandate about wearing masks.

“This government should not be mandating what people put on their face,” she told a Capital Journal reporter.

By the following afternoon, DeWine had reversed course, despite his view that the virus is “just as dangerous as it’s ever been.”

Ohio Capital Journal reporter Jake Zuckerman contributed to this story.

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.