By Marty Schladen

Ohio Capital Journal

With coronavirus cases spiking in Ohio and across the country, Gov. Mike DeWine on Thursday found himself in the awkward position of urging Ohioans to wear masks while refusing to comment on his fellow Republicans’ refusal to do so.

The governor opened his press conference with the grim news that there were 892 new coronavirus cases reported in the state over the past 24 hours — an 81% increase over the 21-day average. It was Ohio’s biggest single-day count since April, DeWine said.

And while Ohio has rapidly expanded its coronavirus testing capacity, DeWine said no analyst he’d spoken to believed more testing was the sole cause of the increase.

Perhaps more alarmingly, the governor featured Dr. Richard P. Lofgren, president and CEO of U.C. Health, who said the “R-naught” figure in Cincinnati had doubled over the previous 10 days.

Now, each infected person on average is infecting 1.5 others. In other words, the spread of the disease in Southwest Ohio has gone from slowing down to speeding up.

But about 78 minutes before DeWine cited the “chilling” statistics and again urged Ohioans to wear masks to stop the spread of coronavirus, an unmasked Vice President Mike Pence emerged with another unmasked man from an electric pickup truck on a stage in the former Lordstown GM plant.

Pence boasted to a partly unmasked audience that the administration of President Donald Trump had “met the moment” in fighting the coronavirus and that “all 50 states have started to open their economies.”  Yet at almost exactly the same moment, Texas was announcing that it was pausing its reopening and freeing up hospital beds amid an alarming spike in the Lone Star State.

Alabama, Missouri and Nevada also reported single-day highs Thursday.

Despite Pence’s claims, Trump has repeatedly played down the severity of the pandemic, urged a rapid reopening of states’ economies in spite of his own administration’s guidelines and politicized the wearing of masks, even suggesting last week that some people wear them to show their opposition to him.

It’s a markedly different message from that of DeWine, who has for months told Ohioans they have a responsibility to mask up in public to protect the lives of their fellow citizens.

But when asked Tuesday whether he’d urge Pence — who also has resisted public mask-wearing — to don one when he visited Ohio, DeWine said, “I’m not going to tell the vice president what to do.”

Pressed Tuesday on whether Pence had at least the same responsibility to his fellow citizens as average Ohioans, DeWine took a pass.

“He’s the vice president of the United States,” DeWine said. “I have respect for the office. I’m not going to get on a phone call and tell him what to do. He’s certainly well aware of everything connected with this. He’s certainly done a phenomenal job in calls with governors.”

The 73-year-old DeWine noted that he and his wife, Fran, went to the Lordstown plant for a tour on Wednesday because they were trying to avoid crowds.

“We continue to urge Ohioans to” wear masks, he said. “It’s the right thing to do and it’s the courteous thing to do.”

However, it’s something that many of Ohio’s Republican lawmakers conspicuously haven’t been doing.

DeWine was asked about an announcement by Ohio Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, that she would close her offices in the Statehouse until her Republican colleagues agree to wear masks at legislative functions. One of Fedor’s staffers has tested positive for the virus.

Again, DeWine took a pass when asked if he’d urge these particular citizens to mask up.

“I don’t see a great deal of a point in public disagreements with anybody if I can avoid it — it’s just not helpful,” DeWine said. “But I’ll say this: Everybody needs to wear a mask if they’re out in public. We just need to get this done. But this is a separate arm of government. I do not intend to tell them what to do. But it is important that Ohioans (socially) distance and wear a mask if they’re out in public.”

DeWine also was asked about two recent Trump actions: his statement that he had told his administration to slow down testing to reduce the number of new reported cases, and his administration’s plan to cut federal funding for testing in some states.

DeWine said he’d continue fighting for such funding, but he again declined to criticize a fellow Republican.

“As far as commenting on everything the president of the United States says, I’m not going to do that,” DeWine said. “We could do that every day and I’m not going to do that. My job is to do my job every single day and to talk to the people of the state of Ohio about the issues that are important. The scientific data is absolutely irrefutable. If 80% of the people wear masks, we’re going to have a decrease in the spread.”

It’s unclear why the governor won’t be more direct about his obvious disagreements with many of his fellow Republicans when it comes to coronavirus policy.

Opinion polls in recent days indicate that by huge margins the public supports DeWine’s approach to the pandemic over Trump’s. A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday said that 77% of Ohioans approve of DeWine’s handling of the pandemic, while just 43% approved of Trump’s.

However the poll includes a great political irony. More Ohio Democrats (81%) approve of DeWine’s overall performance than do his fellow Republicans (76%).

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He’s won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters. Read more Ohio Capital Journal stories here.