It is not hard at all to find fault with Gov. Mike DeWine’s official actions related to the coronavirus pandemic: They’re too much and not enough, intrusive and disruptive without solving the problem. And there’s a good reason for this: What he is expected to do — tame a raging virus in a society where many value personal liberty over public health, even their own health — borders on impossible.
So, no, not many Ohioans praised DeWine’s latest health orders as Ohio cases and hospitalizations soared and Franklin County became the first in Ohio to be designated purple, the highest-risk category, indicating severe exposure and spread. The governor warned businesses they could face temporary closure if they don’t enforce mask-wearing and he ordered more curbs on private gatherings like weddings and a general curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. The curfew is to run for three weeks that started Thursday night.
Has DeWine threaded the needle perfectly? Who knows? But he deserves credit even for trying to lead Ohio through this unprecedented challenge. Some of his fellow Republican governors, far toward the extreme end of the political spectrum, have made it a point of pride to belittle concerns about the virus and do virtually nothing to arrest it. Their constituents are paying a high price.
South Dakota, where GOP Gov. Kristi Noem spurns mask mandates and welcomed nearly a half-million largely unmasked attendees to the jam-packed Sturgis motorcycle rally in August, now joins neighboring North Dakota in suffering through the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreak and one of the worst in the world.
That means, while the U.S. overall is seeing about 35 cases per 100,000 people, South Dakota has 137 and North Dakota has 177. North Dakota’s hospitals are at full capacity and the governor is asking nurses to go to work even if they have tested positive for the virus.
Ohio has avoided this so far, and that arguably is due to the statewide shutdown that DeWine ordered in March, a move that went beyond what many other states were doing at the time. While the governor enjoyed a wave of popularity and praise from those who appreciated the decisive action, the pushback from the know-nothing wing of his own party was immediate and has grown steadily worse.
Bills were introduced to curb the power of the governor and state health director to issue public health orders or reduce penalties to nothing. One of those resurfaced on Wednesday and was approved by the House, with Senate approval likely. DeWine has promised a veto, but hard-right Republican supporters might have enough votes to override it.
The whole world saw the stunning photograph by Dispatch Photographer Joshua A. Bickel, taken on April 13 when a small crowd of protesters, angered by the stay-at-home order, pressed against a Statehouse window during one of DeWine’s daily virus update press conferences, their faces contorted in rage.
DeWine has been called a tyrant and a dictator; some of the dimmer bulbs in the GOP have tried to have him indicted for terrorism. Less comically, a Piqua man told police in October that a woman from Springfield tried to recruit him in a plot to kidnap DeWine and place him under “citizen’s arrest.”
It is against this backdrop that DeWine has struggled to balance further actions to curb COVID. It isn’t necessarily a matter of cowardice, political or personal; those obstructionists are elected members of the state legislature and DeWine can’t simply ignore them. DeWine also is surely aware of the real pain felt by shut-down businesses and their employees.
So is the overnight curfew really as ridiculous as critics are saying? Of course it doesn’t prevent as much risky interaction as an earlier curfew, or closing bars and restaurants, would. But, if people follow it — those working or tending to emergency needs obviously are exempted — it will stop the gatherings that arguably are the least necessary and most problematic. Contact tracing has shown that private parties and gatherings are worse for spreading the virus than restaurants and bars, where safety rules are in place.
At the same time, the overnight shutdown is significantly less harmful to businesses and employees — enough so that John Barker, CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association, appeared on DeWine’s Tuesday briefing saying his members accept it as a reasonable compromise.
Other states undeniably are doing more than Ohio. In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear announced on Wednesday that schools must close for the semester starting Monday; bars and restaurants had to close by Friday for indoor service; weddings and funerals are limited to 25 people and no more than two families, eight people total, should gather indoors.
DeWine’s latest measures might prove inadequate, especially if too many Ohioans ignore them. The state might be forced to impose greater restrictions, with real penalties for violators. Such a failure may lead to the overwhelming of hospitals and all of the cascading fallout from that — exactly what the governor has been trying to avoid. If that happens, he’ll be blamed for having wasted time with half-measures.
It will be unfortunate, but the blame will lie as much with a culture of selfishness and denial as with a governor trying to lead the heedless.
— The Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 22; Online: https://bit.ly/33dEwXR