COLUMBUS, Ohio — Some Ohio businesses could begin reopening after May 1 as long as proper precautions are taken amid the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Mike DeWine said Thursday as he provided the first concrete timeline for a return to normal conditions after weeks of uncertainty, fear and economic hardship.
The Republican governor cautioned that the thaw in the state’s stay-at-home order would be gradual and would be marked by many of the elements that have become part of Ohioans’ routines, including social distancing, the cleaning of surfaces, frequent hand-washing and mask wearing.
Ohio has reported more than 8,400 COVID-19 cases and 389 deaths since announcing the first three cases March 9.
DeWine announced the possible reopening timeline during his daily news briefing, then interrupted his own press conference several minutes later to tamp down expectations as the news tore across social media. He said the plan won’t work if people, whether as workers or consumers, are afraid to venture out.
“We want to do it a way that engenders confidence in the people of the state of Ohio,” DeWine said.
He cautioned that mass gatherings, from concerts to sporting events to county fairs, would be “tougher” and might not happen until the end of the reopening process. DeWine has previously said life won’t be completely back to normal until a vaccine is available, which could still be a year away.
The governor didn’t address schools, which remain closed through May 2, but promised: “We’ll be dealing with schools shortly, probably early next week.”
Calls have been growing to reopen parts of the Ohio economy, including from hospitals who want the ban on elective surgeries lifted, and lawmakers in rural areas that have seen few coronavirus cases or deaths.
Protesters have picketed the Ohio Statehouse during DeWine’s news conferences demanding that the state reopen immediately. And even as DeWine discussed a May 1 reopening, a Columbus bridal shop sued state Health Director Dr. Amy Acton, saying Acton’s shuttering of nonessential employers is leading to “decimation of their businesses, livelihoods, and economic security.”
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce welcomed DeWine’s announcement. Though the COVID-19 crisis isn’t over, “businesses are ready to get back to work, and knowing that May 1 is the target date for this happening will allow them sufficient time to prepare to reopen safely and successfully,” said chamber CEO Andrew Doehrel.
DeWine said he understands the importance of getting the economy moving again, but Ohio must be careful to avoid problems such as future COVID-19 spikes after society has reopened. The state will keep a close eye on supplies of personal protective equipment like gowns, masks and face shields, and also on testing, the governor said.
“If we don’t do it right, the consequences are horrendous,” the governor said.
DeWine also said he’s working with the governors of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Wisconsin to reopen the region in coordinated fashion.
“We look forward to working with experts and taking a fact-based, data-driven approach to reopening our economy in a way that protects families from the spread of COVID-19,” the governors said in a statement an hour before President Donald Trump outlined to governors a phased approach to restoring normal commerce and services if there is strong testing and a decrease in cases. “Our No. 1 priority when analyzing when (is) best to reopen our economy is the health and safety of our citizens.”
The Midwestern alliance joins pacts on the West Coast and in the Northeast that were announced this week. All together, the 17 states covered by the partnerships are home to nearly half of the country’s population.
“I can’t speak for what the other governors are going to do, and I won’t, but we are all in a lot of contact and I think it’s good for the people of our respective states that we’re sharing ideas,” he said.
“Phasing in sectors of our economy will be most effective when we work together as a region,” said the governors, who include five Democrats — Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, Wisconsin’s Tony Evers, Illinois’ J.B. Pritzker, Minnesota’s Tim Walz, Kentucky’s Andy Beshear — and two Republicans, DeWine and Eric Holcomb of Indiana. They stressed it does not mean every state will take the same steps at the same time.
“Close coordination will ensure we get this right,” said Evers, who on Thursday extended Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order until May 26.
Trump’s road map
Trump gave governors a road map Thursday for recovering from the economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic, laying out “a phased and deliberate approach” to restoring normal activity in places that have strong testing and are seeing a decrease in COVID-19 cases.
“We’re starting our life again,” Trump said during his daily press briefing. “We’re starting rejuvenation of our economy again.”
He added, “This is a gradual process.”
The new guidelines are aimed at easing restrictions in areas with low transmission of the coronavirus, while holding the line in harder-hit locations. They make clear that the return to normalcy will be a far longer process than Trump initially envisioned, with federal officials warning that some social distancing measures may need to remain in place through the end of the year to prevent a new outbreak. And they largely reinforce the plans already under development by governors, who have the primary responsibility for public health in their states.
“You’re going to call your own shots,” Trump told the governors Thursday afternoon in a conference call. “We’re going to be standing alongside of you.”
Places with declining infections and strong testing would begin a three-phase gradual reopening of businesses and schools.
In phase one, for instance, the plan recommends strict social distancing for all people in public. Gatherings larger than 10 people are to be avoided and nonessential travel is discouraged.
In phase two, people are encouraged to maximize social distancing where possible and limit gatherings to no more than 50 people unless precautionary measures are taken. Travel could resume.
Phase three envisions a return to normalcy for most Americans, with a focus on identification and isolation of any new infections.