In House chambers in Columbus, at a drag strip near Cincinnati and in a Dollar General store in Ashland, Ohioans are defying the governor and health director’s admonitions to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus.
West of Cambridge along U.S. Route 40, Vicki Brearley has kept her National Road Diner open — attracting visitors from all over Ohio — despite multiple visits from the county sheriff and health departments.
“I believe it’s my constitutional right to open my business now,” she says, even though Gov. Mike DeWine and Health Director Dr. Amy Acton declared that dine-in restaurants can’t reopen until May 21.
In Orrville, the “Playground Patriots” gathered at a local park last weekend and allowed their children to use equipment that had been closed to prevent spreading the virus. Organizers distributed a flier via Facebook saying, “We are done giving up freedoms, watching our economy crumble, allowing our constitution to be ignored.” Police arrived, reminded them of the state order, and the crowd dispersed.
In Portsmouth, Eaton and Ashland, county commissioners are demanding that DeWine and Acton free them from the state health restrictions. The Preble County board in Eaton simply declared all of its county’s businesses essential on May 1 and able to reopen instantly, with commission President Denise Robertson pledging to literally stand in the way and call in the sheriff if any authorities try to enforce state edicts, the Dayton Daily News reported. The officials backed down last week, according to Dayton247.com.
The Ashland and Scioto county commissioners sent DeWine what appeared to be a copy of the same letter, which concluded, “We took an oath as county commissioners to uphold the constitutions of the United States and the state of Ohio. It is our responsibility as elected officials to protect our citizens’ rights.”
As Ohio slowly reopens, officials say the refusal of some of its own residents to take the health warnings seriously could slow or even reverse the state’s push to avoid the worst of the deadly virus, which has killed at least 1,341 in the Buckeye State.
“We can be careful, or we can not be careful,” DeWine said during his update Thursday on the coronavirus battle. “And if this is like ringing a bell and saying, ‘Hey, you can go out, it’s time to go out, we can go do everything, and we don’t have to be careful anymore,’ then we are in trouble — big, big trouble.
“But we control this, all of us collectively, and we can do this,” he said.
It’s impossible to tell how many in Ohio are blowing off the state coronavirus precautions or how egregious their offenses. For example, how big a problem are the crowds that regularly form around the popular Antrim Lake in northern Columbus?
In Ashland, a 65-year-old customer refused to enter a dollar store after seeing employees and most customers without masks. At the drag strip, Edgewater Motor Sports in Cleves, police arrested the organizer of an invitation-only race that reportedly involved about 80 people.
As state health restrictions near the two-month mark, the outrage against them seems to have spread from a few online agitators to protesters at the Statehouse to Republicans who dominate the Ohio House. By almost a straight party-line vote, the House approved a measure last week that would give lawmakers much more control over state health orders. DeWine has pledged to veto it.
Some of Ohio’s disdain for state limitations is visible in rural areas, where locals point to relatively low infection and death statistics.
Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, who lives on a farm in Perry County southeast of Columbus, brought up that divide when asked why he and most other Republicans did not wear protective masks when the House convened Wednesday.
“I think a lot of that is where you geographically are from. Many of our members are from rural areas. We’ve been practicing social distancing our entire lives,” said Householder, noting that he doesn’t own a mask.
“I just think that, if you’re from an area or region that has a greater density of population, I think you are probably more likely to worry about those things.”
Most Democrats wore masks when the House met. One of them, Rep. Michael Skindell of Lakewood, introduced a bill the next day that would require masks during legislative sessions. “By wearing a mask, you are demonstrating your deep concern for the health and safety of people around you,” he said.
However, Republican state Rep. Nino Vitale of Urbana said, “No one is stopping anybody from wearing a face mask. But quite frankly, everyone else’s freedom ends at the tip of my nose. You’re not going to tell me what to do, and there’s a lot of people that feel that way.”
You don’t have to convince Michelle Newman, director of the Canal Market District in Newark.
After she posted guidelines on Facebook asking shoppers to maintain social distancing and wear a mask “if you can,” she was flooded with criticism.
“It kind of ignited a little bit of a firestorm,” Newman said. “I had no idea it would be as contentious as it was. I did not expect people online to be so angry about it. Some were very happy with the restrictions we put in place.”
During Thursday’s briefing, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said, “I know we don’t like masks, some of us. I don’t like wearing them. I know many people that don’t, but it’s not about me. It’s not about any one of us. It’s about the responsibility we have to each other to respect distances, to wash our hands a couple of times a day to make sure that we are not spreading the virus potentially to someone else.”
To Alaina Shearer, a congressional candidate and businesswoman from southern Delaware County, the process of reopening Ohio has been eye-opening — and concerning.
“This is a war, and our divisions have never been more palpable,” the Democrat said in a campaign email Friday.
“I saw it myself when I went out for the first time last week to a big-box retail store. After two months of staying in, after doing everything I can to save the two businesses I have built with love and care for the past 10 years, after giving up everything to fight the virus, I was stunned to see at least half of the shoppers not wearing masks or practicing social distancing.
“I respect personal freedoms above all else. But the choice to walk around without a mask will keep me and so many other customers from ever walking into that retail store again until proper safety precautions are in place.”
The opposite sentiment was on display at Gionino’s Pizzeria in Wooster and Orrville, which posted signs declaring that customers would not be forced to wear masks or personal protective equipment. “Please reference the US Constitution,” the sign added.
Dan Kipfer, co-owner of the two franchises, said the sign was meant to inform patrons it was up to them if they wanted to wear masks and other personal protective equipment into the pizzerias to pick up their order.
Sometimes violations of the state orders result in arrests; other times they don’t.
The 56-year-old operator of the We Salute You thrift store in downtown New Philadelphia — advertised as veteran-owned and operated — was charged with violating a public health order for keeping a “nonessential” business open.
But no arrests were made when about 600 classic cars were gathered in the parking lot of a former Kmart in Massillon. The organizer of the cruise-in said it attracted drivers from Columbus, Dayton, Cleveland, Toledo and many places in between.
After talking with police, the drivers departed — potentially taking the coronavirus back home with them to their families and friends.
Contributing to this story were Anna Staver of The Dispatch; Rick Stillion of the (Cambridge) Daily Jeffersonian; Kent Mallett of the Newark Advocate; Emily Morgan of The (Wooster) Daily Record; Nancy Molnar of The (Dover-New Philadelphia) Times-Reporter; Amy L. Knapp of Massillon’s IndeOnline.com; and Jeanne Houck of the Cincinnati Enquirer.