Bill sponsored by Butler County lawmaker would prevent forced business closures during emergencies

A Butler County lawmaker says a bill has proposed will ensure Ohio businesses can operate equally during a state of emergency, no matter if it’s a pandemic, epidemic or bioterrorism event.

And Senate Bill 134, led by Ohio Sen. George Lang, is not likely to garner enough opposition in the Ohio House. The West Chester Twp. Republican said it’s “nearly identical” to House Bill 215, which overwhelmingly passed the House.

“The only difference between Senate Bill 134 and the House-passed version of House Bill 215 is that my bill contains an emergency clause,” said Lang.

SB 134 and HB 215, which both passed their respective chambers last month, say if an order or rule issued by the state’s health director or the Ohio Department of Health restricts or limits business operations, “then that business may reopen, or remain open, if it complies with all safety precautions put in place for businesses that were allowed to continue operations,” said Lang.

According to the bill, it does not apply to an order or rule applicable to a specific business or business location due to circumstances uniquely present at that business or location.

The House supported HB 215 with a 77-17 vote (and 15 of 32 Democrats backed it).

Many of Ohio’s small businesses were negatively impacted by the state’s shutdown in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and are vital to each of our local communities, but many were forced to close their doors, while their large retail competitors were permitted to remain open,” Lang said. “This legislation will allow these businesses to stay open, provided they meet the proper guidelines and safety standards.”

In the 16 months since the start of the pandemic, more than 20,000 Ohioans have died due to the coronavirus. As COVID-19 virus cases have dropped and vaccinations continue, the DeWine Administration has lifted nearly all of health department restrictions.

Many of the members of the National Federation of Independent Business reported revenues down by more than 50 percent over the course of the pandemic, said Roger Geiger, executive director for the NFIB in Ohio. He said its impact “will be felt for years.”

“It was simply not fair for small business owners who have been forced to shut down while their major big box store competitors were able to remain open, often selling the same or very similar products,” Geiger said. “Any business that can comply with all the safety protocols must be able to remain open.”

Lang’s sponsor testimony last week was the first hearing for Senate Bill 134 in the House Economic and Workforce Development Committee. However, House Bill 215 has not yet been scheduled for a hearing in the Senate’s Small Business and Economic Opportunity Committee.

Rep. Beth Liston, D-Upper Arlington, was one of the 17 opposing Democrats, said during the floor vote of House Bill 215, it is “broad” and doesn’t allow public health departments to react to any potential pandemic, epidemic, or bioterrorism event.

“We all want safety, we all want predictability. Our businesses want that too,” she said. “In creating this blanket legislation, saying that we cannot react in a way that may be appropriate for any possible future event could be really detrimental.”

House Bill 215 joint sponsor Rep. Shane Wilkin, R-Hillsboro, said he believes the bill allows the health departments to react, but this bill gives business owners options to open or close.

“I think we’ve got to give our business owners and entrepreneurs in this state a little more credit that they can do this, or they can make the decision on their own not to open,” Wilkin said.

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