Two state Senate Republicans introduced legislation Tuesday that would allow local health districts to opt out of orders issued by the state health director.
Senate Bill 348 is the latest piece of legislation introduced to limit the state health department’s ability to issue orders and defang its power to enforce them in the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 3,600 Ohioans.
It follows legislative proposals to reduce the penalties for flouting public health orders (which the governor vetoed); to give the legislature oversight of health orders; and to require written consent before contact tracing begins, surely slowing down the time-sensitive process.
Sen. Tim Schaffer, of Lancaster, the bill’s lead sponsor, said he introduced it because of a “miscommunication” between levels of government. He elaborated that he, and many of his constituents, believe the Ohio Department of Health publishes “fake data” about COVID-19 because it counts probable cases in its total case count.
“I think we have a legitimate case to wonder and question about how accurate the data is,” he said.
The CDC and ODH practice — in part brought on by lingering, widespread testing shortages — calls for people to be counted as cases if they show symptoms of COVID-19 and have likely been exposed to a person confirmed to have the virus. Certain people with antibodies are also considered probable cases, which are tracked separately on ODH’s website and account for about 5% of Ohio’s caseload.
The bill also forbids local health boards from issuing orders stating a person “will” or “shall” be prosecuted, instead only allowing the use of “may” — effectively neutering their power to compel enforcement.
Ohioans statewide are required to wear masks indoors to slow the spread of COVID-19. The proposal, based on myriad research on the effectiveness of masks, would give health boards the ability to opt out from these requirements and similar mandates.
“If you’re willing to sacrifice your liberties for safety, then you don’t deserve either,” said Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, one of the bill’s sponsors, in an interview.
“I don’t think It’s right for the government to mandate that people have to cover their faces.”
Unlike recent actions by state lawmakers to limit local governments’ abilities to ban plastic grocery bags or impose gun control measures, the new proposal allows for more local control.
Roegner, a cosponsor on SB 348, addressed the dissonance.
“I think there are certain topics where it does make sense for the state to be uniform like [guns], but when it comes to issues of health, or mask wearing, that should be left to local districts,” she said.
Schaffer made similar remarks.
“First of all, this bill is not about plastic bags. Secondly, it’s about constitutional rights, keeping the economy strong, and keeping people safe. And thirdly, I would say, it’s about better communication which will lead to better compliance,” he said.
The bill would also add more health professionals and representatives of “the interests of business within the health district” to health boards.
Skepticism toward state data on the coronavirus is hardly unique. The House passed a “Truth in COVID-19 Statistics” in June. Then-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, R-Glenford, has also baselessly claimed that ODH pads its data by double or triple-counting cases.
The latest bill is unlikely to pass. It would need to get through the House of Representatives, which has been rocked by the indictment of the former Speaker on a $61 million racketeering scheme, and past a governor who has proven his willingness to veto anti-public health measures.
“In the midst of this pandemic, now is not the time to change tactics and impede local health officials’ ability to protect all Ohioans,” Gov. Mike DeWine said in a veto message. “A robust public health system protects us from E-coli and Legionella outbreaks, threats of bioterrorism, or once-in-a-century pandemics.”
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.