Editorial: A race against the virus and the legislature

Elyria Chronicle-Telegram

Ohioans are on a shot clock.

The days are ticking down to mid-June, when an ill-conceived state law will take effect, giving the Republican-controlled General Assembly the power to override Gov. Mike DeWine’s health orders, such as a statewide mask mandate.

Given the antipathy so many of DeWine’s fellow Republicans have shown toward his orders, there’s every reason to fear they will use their new powers quickly, whether the pandemic is under control or not.

Were DeWine’s defensive measures to fall, the virus could spread rapidly among the state’s unvaccinated population. Although some people would continue to follow public health guidance, others would abandon it, either because of politics or pandemic fatigue.

Nearly 3.5 million Ohioans had begun a vaccine regimen, or almost 30 percent of the state’s population. About 2 million of those had completed their vaccinations, or a little more than 17 percent of the population.

Vaccinations will continue to climb, but the question is whether they can outpace a rise in cases. That increase is driven, at least in part, by more contagious variants of the coronavirus, Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, the Ohio Department of Health’s chief medical officer, said.

The state reported 2,475 new cases Thursday, well above the 21-day rolling average of 1,672.

They’re not the grim numbers we saw during the worst surge of the pandemic around the holidays, but the increase in cases is troubling because they had fallen before plateauing recently.

In early March, DeWine had said he would lift the health orders once the incidence rate dropped to 50 cases per 100,000 people for two weeks.

At the time, the state sat at 178.5 cases per 100,000 people. The rate dropped over the next two weeks, hitting 143.8 cases March 18, but then it started to rise again.

By Thursday, it had climbed to 167.1 cases per 100,000 people.

Things were even worse in Lorain County, which had 198.8 cases per 100,000 people. The county remained red on the state’s coronavirus heat map and made DeWine’s list of the 20 counties with the highest incidence of spread.

Ohio is not alone in experiencing an uptick in cases. Things are particularly bad in Michigan, and DeWine said the Ohio counties closest to our northern neighbor have felt the effects of what’s happened there.

The variants, the rise in cases and the difficulties too many people have had getting vaccinated are all reasons for DeWine to fight hard to retain his authority to issue health orders.

The law will allow the legislature to rescind public health orders and states of emergency, and to bar them from being issued again for at least 60 days. It will limit emergency declarations to 30 days, although the legislature could extend them.

It also limits local health boards’ authority to issue quarantine orders that impact schools and businesses and to isolate people suspected of coming into contact with contagious deadly diseases.

The legislators’ desire to provide a check on the governor’s public health and emergency powers might be warranted had DeWine abused his authority. He hasn’t.

Conversely, if DeWine had refused to protect public health, and the legislature wanted to force him to do so, a law allowing members to supersede his authority might have been justifiable.

Even then, however, there would be serious questions about the constitutionally of a law blurring the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. That was one of the chief concerns DeWine raised before he vetoed the bill.

His veto was promptly overridden by legislators, including, disappointingly, state Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, and state Reps. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville, and Dick Stein, R-Norwalk, all of whom represent Lorain County. By voting as they did, they placed politics ahead of the health of their constituents.

DeWine laid out a host of other valid concerns about the law, including the limits it could place on him or a future governor to address a pandemic, bioterrorism attack or other emergency.

He said that his lawyers were looking into the possibility of a legal challenge.

DeWine would be justified in taking the matter to court, but he needs to move quickly.

The clock is running.


Elyria Chronicle-Telegram

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