LIMA — For weeks, Gov. Mike DeWine turned to personal responsibility over new restrictions as the state recorded its highest numbers of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic. But now, as hospitals warn that they may not be able to properly staff their facilities if the influx of COVID-19 patients does not subside soon, DeWine is once again looking to close bars, restaurants and fitness centers as early as next Thursday.
The pending decision comes as the Lima region is experiencing exponential spread of coronavirus, and many Ohioans have grown tired of public health orders intended to keep the virus at bay.
Allen County Public Health and neighboring health departments are now overseeing so many COVID-19 cases that they are asking the public to inform their close contacts of a positive COVID-19 diagnosis right away, as health department contact tracers may not be able to make those calls within 24 hours — suggesting a breakdown of the contact tracing process at its most crucial moment.
Messaging from health departments is now increasingly focused on urging the public to reconsider non-essential activities, particularly gatherings where people will be crowded together indoors without masks.
If the trend continues, DeWine said on Wednesday that he may be forced to once again close down indoor dining at restaurants and bars, as well as indoor fitness centers — an unpopular decision that many public health experts say is needed as the weather pushes people indoors and the virus spreads exponentially.
“We know they’re one of the sources of spread, and one of the things that we can intervene in,” said Dr. Tara Smith, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at Kent State University.
That’s because the coronavirus spreads primarily via respiratory droplets and aerosols: tiny particles that may linger in the air after someone coughs, sneezes, talks or breathes, which are then inhaled by others who are not yet infected.
Even with strict capacity limits and sanitation standards, DeWine said on Wednesday that these venues by their nature are places where it is difficult or impossible to wear a mask effectively.
DeWine acknowledged that any decision to close these places will burden restaurant workers and owners, allowing one week to see if statewide trends continue to worsen before he makes a formal decision.
But Smith said it’s unlikley the situation will improve in one week, which is less than the 14-day incubation period after infection during which a person may not yet show symptoms.
“Policymakers are in a hard spot right now,” said Dr. Joel Kammeyer, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor for the University of Toledo. “No one wants to return to lockdowns, but we’re also quickly reaching the point where we’re not going to have much else in our toolkit if the goal is to try and bend the curve in the direction of fewer cases.”
Kammeyer said the U.S. could bring the pandemic under control in three or four weeks with a nationwide lockdown, because the virus would have nowhere to transmit. But it’s a risky decision in its own right, he said, because of the economic damage that would result.
“If the only priority was to bring the virus under control,” Kammeyer said, “we probably should have been on lockdown two weeks ago. But we’re balancing that versus the need to reopen the economy and the need to keep people employed and their livelihoods intact, so I think what will hopefully happen is that individuals will understand that we can individually make the choice to protect ourselves — certainly with masks and social distancing — but it’s time for individuals to really consider whether they themselves want to restrict non-essential travel and non-essential encounters.”