COLUMBUS, Ohio – When Ohio lawmakers return to work next week, they’ll have at least one proposal to reduce the power of the state’s top health official.
State Rep. John Becker, R-Union Township, plans to introduce a bill that would immediately make all public health orders advisory instead of mandatory unless approved by lawmakers. The bill would apply to orders issued by state health department director Dr. Amy Acton in recent weeks to address the coronavirus pandemic as well as future orders.
“She can issue all the orders she wants all day long, but they are deemed advisory under the bill unless the General Assembly declares them mandatory,” Becker said Saturday in an interview.
Becker said he doesn’t know yet how many lawmakers support his “Need Ohio Working Now” bill. But fellow House Republicans have been vocal this week in their criticism of Acton and Gov. Mike DeWine.
Becker told The Enquirer he has been flooded with calls and emails from constituents who are frustrated that the state’s economy has not fully reopened. Nearly 1.1 million Ohioans — about 18% of the state’s workers – have filed for unemployment over the last six weeks.
The Ohio Department of Health director has broad statutory power to “make special or standing orders or rules…for preventing the spread of contagious or infectious diseases.”
Acton and DeWine have issued more than two dozen orders, including limiting large gatherings, halting elective surgeries, closing the polls and requiring Ohioans to stay home unless leaving for “essential” work and activities.
The state’s stay-at-home order, enacted March 23, was extended this week to May 29 with exceptions to allow more businesses to reopen. DeWine expects more businesses will open in the coming weeks as rules are devised to protect employees and customers in those industries.
The goal: reduce spread of the coronavirus so Ohio’s health care system is not overloaded.
Becker said Ohio did that, and it’s time to lift all restrictions.
“Fortunately, the predictions did not pan out and the concern was overblown,” Becker said.
DeWine and medical experts across the country have warned that quickly reverting back to “normal” will result in a surge of infections that Ohio and other places avoided with mitigation efforts. One of the latest warnings came Friday from a team of University of Cincinnati scientists.
Revised state modeling showed infections would peak in mid-April with about 2,000 cases per day; the largest single-day increase in reported cases has been 1,317 cases on April 20. The difference has been attributed to Ohioans’ adherence to public health orders, social distancing and other recommendations.
Becker said he agrees there will likely be more infections and hospital admissions if things open up, but the orders are “a major violation of civil liberties and that’s illegal.”
Becker said he doesn’t blame Acton – she’s doing her job – but he says DeWine should take doctors’ advice and recommendations as just that.
“I don’t question the governor’s sincerity and integrity,” he said. “I want to question his judgment. He’s simply wrong.”