OHIO | DeWine says coronavirus fight has to take priority over safety net

Crystal Hererra, 30, sits for a portrait in the passenger seat of her husband’s car as they wait in the drive-through pickup area of the All People’s Fresh Market food pantry in Columbus, Ohio on July 28, 2020. Hererra’s husband has been receiving the $600 weekly unemployment bonus subsidy that has been helping to support Crystal and their five children. She is unsure how they will be able to survive once it ends this week. (Brooke LaValley/ Ohio Capital Journal)

By Marty Schladen

Ohio Capital Journal 

Among the excruciating choices he’s had to make in the coronavirus epidemic, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine addressed one on Thursday. He said that with limited resources, he’d have to prioritize fighting the disease over helping low-income Ohioans facing increasingly desperate circumstances.

Some advocates for the poor said, however, said that is a false choice; that the more unstable vulnerable Ohioans become, the tougher it will be to check the spread of COVID-19.

Even before the start of the pandemic, the number of poor Ohioans was  higher than many Ohioans would expect, with more than a quarter of the state’s population enrolled in Medicaid, the federal/state health plan for the poor. 

When the pandemic came, it hit low-income Ohioans particularly hard, infecting them at greater rates, putting many out of their service jobs and forcing others to stay home out of health or child-care concerns, or both.

Then at the end of July, a $600 federal weekly unemployment supplement expired days after a moratorium on evictions did.

Already, usage of Ohio food banks has taken a big jump, and evictions are expected to increase markedly once a 30-day notification period ends Sept. 1.

“So far, it hasn’t been outrageously high numbers,” said Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio. “But I think that it’s going to begin to change once we get to Labor Day and it’s going to get worse progressively and the only way to address this effectively is to give people resources to get their rent paid.” 

Meanwhile, the Ohio Public Utilities Commission has given the go-ahead for electric utilities to start disconnecting customers next month for being behind on their bills. Some natural gas utilities already are. 

“We’re just coming to that time where we’re going to see evictions and the utilities are able to disconnect, the federal pandemic unemployment program has expired. we just feel like there’s a crisis coming, said Susan Jagers, director of the Ohio Poverty Law Center.”

Congress, which is at a stalemate over more coronavirus relief, is on vacation until Sept. 8. State officials and advocates have been calling for lawmakers to return to Washington, D.C. and act now, but there’s no sign of that happening.

To help fill the vacuum, the group Advocates for Ohio’s Future is calling on DeWine to expend $243 million of the more than $1 billion the state has in unexpended coronavirus relief to alleviate what it sees as the coming crisis:

  • $100 million in emergency rental assistance
  • $38 million in utility assistance
  • $45 million in food and basic needs assistance
  • $60 million for child care

In a press conference Thursday that was dominated by questions about youth sports, DeWine was asked about whether he would or could provide funding that advocates say is needed to keep a large portion of Ohioans from tipping over the brink.

“We are not unmindful of the merit of the request,” he said. “But I think our fundamental goal has to be to keep the virus down, because nothing else can happen if we don’t keep the virus down.”

The governor emphasized the importance of testing capacity in doing so and the money needed to achieve it.

“We have to make sure we have enough money set aside to get us through what may be a rough winter,” DeWine said. “We don’t know, but some of the experts I’ve consulted nationwide have said November, December and January could be very, very, very rough with the flu coming back and people all indoorsk at the same time the virus is spreading. So that is an imperative for us: to make sure we have the money for the tests.”

On Twitter, one advocate said the argument seemed reasonable, but it contained an important oversight.

“Gov. says controlling virus must be priority for $. It’s a fair answer,” wrote Graham Bowman, an attorney with the Ohio Poverty Law Center. “My response is it’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. Controlling the virus isn’t possible amid a homeless crisis.”

Bowman then added, “Anyone who has ever worked in extreme poverty knows that contact tracing and testing will be impossible. If you lost your apartment for non-payment of rent then you probably stopped paying Verizon long ago. It just won’t work without  basic social stability.”

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.

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