The spread of coronavirus continued across Ohio Thursday as Gov. Mike Dewine also continued his struggle to communicate the seriousness of the crisis over the din of influential voices in his own party.
Another 1,150 cases were reported Thursday, continuing a steep, upward trend over the past three weeks. Five new counties were added to the seven already on the state’s high-alert list. And while Franklin County was no longer poised to go to the highest level of alert, three others — Hamilton, Butler and Cuyahoga counties — were moved up to that status.
Nationally, the 59,400 new cases announced on Wednesday set the fifth national record in nine days.
Severe shortages of personal-protective equipment were again setting in, Texas was cancelling more elective surgeries, Arizona was straining its ICU capacity, the Ivy League cancelled its fall sports season and Ohio State canceled its athletic workouts after receiving the results of COVID 19 testing.
Yet DeWine still seemed to be trying to explain the severity of the disease — which has now killed more than 3,000 Ohioans and more than 130,000 Americans — to his fellow Republicans, whom he has been reluctant to criticize directly.
DeWine came as close to direct criticism as he has in recent months when asked on Thursday about recent comments by state Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana. In a Tuesday Facebook post, Vitale wrote, “Are you tired of living in a dictatorship yet? This is what happens when people go crazy and get tested. STOP GETTING TESTED!” the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
DeWine seemed exasperated.
“I think that’s shocking for anyone to recommend to their fellow citizens that they not be tested,”he said. “I just don’t know what to say.”
Knowing whether you’re infected isn’t just a way to protect yourself and others.
Throughout the pandemic, health experts across the world have said that wide, frequent testing is a key to understanding the disease, its spread and to knowing how and where to fight it. They’ve said, in essence, that one can’t do science without gathering data.
Later in the press conference, DeWine seemed to come back to the matter, saying, “Please get a test. If you have the opportunity to get a test, get a test.”
DeWine also announced that a member of his staff had tested positive for coronavirus.
Asked if he had any insight into the Republican-led legislature’s handling of coronavirus cases in the House, the Senate and their staffs, DeWine said he didn’t.
Legislative Democrats are furious that Republican leaders haven’t been transparent about when and where people have tested positive.
“While the Republicans are trying to prove a point that this isn’t for real, they’re really going to mess around and cause someone an untimely death because of their unwillingness to take on the necessary precautions,” Rep. Stephanie Howse, D-Cleveland — who is herself infected with the virus — told the Capital Journal on Wednesday.
As the disease is spreading, DeWine was at pains to explain his order that in the 12 hardest-hit counties, he was ordering mask-wearing in places where much spread is believed to be taking place: churches.
“We have never closed down any religious ceremony — none,” DeWine said, explaining that as with the national counterparts, state health experts have traced spread in some instances to religious gatherings, including funerals.
But even as he urged people to wear masks in church, he said people engaged in activities likely to project virus-spreading droplets — speaking — don’t have to.
Then the governor watered down his mask order even further.
“We’re not talking about throwing people in jail,” he said. “This is a law to advise people what to do.”
If DeWine’s recent responses to the public health emergency seem tepid, part of the reason might be that he hasn’t had the support of Republican lawmakers — even those who represent hard-hit counties.
Nearly two-dozen Republican state representatives signed a letter to DeWine on June 3 effectively declaring the pandemic over. Legislators argued the governor should revoke all of the state’s health orders.
“Ohio smashed the curve long ago,” the letter stated. “Mission accomplished!”
Signatories included seven legislators from hard-hits counties, including Tom Brinkman, Jr. of Hamilton County; Phil Plummer of Montgomery County; George Lang, Paul Zeltwanger and Candice Keller of Butler County; Dick Stein of Huron County; and John Becker of Clermont County.
State Sen. Andrew Brenner, representing a northern part of red Franklin County, posted to Facebook on June 23, “Clearly the general population is safe from Covid19.” On July 3, he retweeted a message saying, “The COVID epidemic is over.”
With cases spiking the wake of those statements, DeWine was left Thursday to reassure those Ohians subject to his mask order that it won’t be too harsh.
“People are going to get a break,” he said. “People are just going to be asked to put a mask on.”
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.