OHIO | Cleanings, empty desks, and a 4th case suggest COVID-19 outbreak at the Statehouse

By Jake Zuckerman

Ohio Capital Journal

A state Senator said Thursday that another staffer at the Ohio Statehouse has tested positive for COVID-19, the fourth known case to hit the building in two weeks.

Managers for the House office buildings have been called in seven times in the last two weeks for special disinfection of “multiple offices and common spaces.”

Staffers at just eight of 45 House Republican offices answered their phones Thursday at two floors where large spreads of employees have purportedly been quarantined.

In other words, the new coronavirus seems to have penetrated the seat of Ohio’s government, after the members of the controlling GOP majority have spent months downplaying or outright denying the gravity of a pandemic that has killed more than 3,000 Ohioans.

Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, who has not responded to multiple requests through spokesmen for comment, issued a directive late Thursday afternoon ordering all staffers to work from home, effective Friday morning. This is after he ended a prior work-from-home policy June 1.

Householder and other members of his leadership team voted down a requirement in late May that members and staff wear masks, which research published in The Lancet suggests could substantially reduce viral transmission.

House staff have refused to state how many at the Capitol have been quarantined or infected by the coronavirus.

There’s an imperfect proxy: The Division of Administrative Services cleans the Riffe Center on a regular basis with special measures advised by the World Health Organization.

On seven occasion over the last two weeks, DAS spokeswoman Melissa Vance said workers have been called in for “specialized cleaning/disinfection regimen.”  This includes electrostatic fogging, which discharges a disinfecting mist on all surfaces, along with manual cleaning of lateral surfaces and touchpoints like desks, phones and doorknobs.

No one said why the cleaners were needed, but they showed up in N95 masks, face shields, gloves, an outer gown type covering and shoe covers, Vance said.

The Ohio Capital Journal reported Thursday morning the presence of three known COVID-19 cases (one House lawmaker, one House staffer, and one Senate staffer), and an unusual arrangement in which House administrative staff is seemingly handling contact tracing in lieu of the health department.

“The Speaker’s staff has taken it upon itself to do contact tracing and send people home,” said Rep. Allison Russo, D-Upper Arlington.

Russo said she spoke to a governmental affairs liaison from Columbus Public Health on Thursday morning, who told her the department only learned of the House aide who tested positive for the disease through a media report. She said CPH was working to figure out where he or she had been tested.

A CPH spokeswoman did not responded to multiple inquiries.

Voicemails were left at 37 of 45 Republican lawmakers’ offices on the 11th and 13th floor, which Russo alleged were home to some of the most notable vacancies. Of the eight staffers who answered, only one (who requested anonymity) agreed to an interview.

“On the eleventh floor, there is a significant amount of people not here today,” the GOP staffer said.

Across the building, another Senate staffer allegedly contracted the coronavirus.

The Senate Democrats chief of staff notified Sen. Teresa Fedor on Thursday that a Senate staffer tested positive for COVID-19, Fedor said in an interview.

She closed her Senate office indefinitely in late June after an aide contracted the virus. She said she’d only re-open it after an agreement could be reached between the Senate Democrats and Republicans regarding how to respond to future outbreaks or individual cases.

“I think that there is a definite wave of the virus coming through our work environment at the statehouse,” she said. “If the politics were out of this, we wouldn’t be going through this. It’s a health crisis, and it’s preventable.”

A spokesman for Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, could not be reached for comment.

For weeks now, Democrats have complained about working conditions at the Capitol. They say Republicans refuse to wear masks and a lack of social distancing has made for an unsafe workplace.

In a news release Thursday evening, House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, blasted Householder for withholding information about potential cases and “spreading lies” about what’s happening.

“The Speaker of the House has an obligation during this pandemic to provide accurate information to members and staff,” she said. “People deserve to know what risks are associated with reporting to work each day and contact tracing should never be a partisan process. Our constituents need us to be healthy in order to work for them.”

Franklin County, which encompasses the state Capitol, carries the heaviest case load (about 11,000) and death toll (439) of the pandemic by county in Ohio, according to state data.

Jake Zuckerman is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily. Read more Ohio Capital Journal stories here.

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