Butler County businesses fight health district orders: What they’re disputing


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A state commission has cleared the way for car washes and businesses that spread mulch to remain open so long as precautions are taken to protect from coronavirus transmission.

But the three members have ruled pet groomers must stay closed, and their interpretation of other sections of the state’s stay-at-home order mean other businesses must close or risk penalties.

A handful of Ohio businesses ordered to shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic have now had cases heard by the state’s Dispute Resolution Commission, designed to resolve differences when local health departments have disagreed with businesses on whether those operations are essential in the face of a pandemic.

Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton appointed Lydia Mihalik, director of the Ohio Development Services Agency, Sheryl Maxfield, director of the Ohio Department of Commerce and Randazzo, chair of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, to referee the disputes.

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Disputes can be brought to the commission by health departments or by businesses affected by the determinations of the health departments, Randazzo said. During its first three meetings, the commission has sided with companies six times, with two caveats among those instances, and deemed another five businesses not essential.

A dispute filed April 7 by commercial grounds maintenance company GroundsPRO, a landscaping company in West Chester Twp., worked to resolve differing determinations of health departments in Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties.

Aaron Reininger, who handles business development for GroundsPro, said the company employs 200 across three locations, including Butler County, Hamilton County and Indiana. Eighty of those employees work in West Chester.

GroundsPro filed a dispute with the committee after the Butler County General Health District sent an April 6 letter saying that "essential activities that are allowed to continue would be: mowing grass, spraying lawns for pests such as fleas, mosquitoes, and ticks. Non-essential activities would be for aesthetics only such as mulching, planting flowers, spraying fertilizer."

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“It was shocking because it was the first time that we had been told anything regarding that particular service being done was non-essential,” Reininger said. “I was caught off guard that we were singled out.”

He said it was hard to put a dollar amount of the amount of business lost in Butler County during the 10 days the business was not allowed to mulch, plant flowers or spray fertilizer there. Because the business works in surrounding counties, it was able to shift workers to those areas.

“A lot of our concern, more than our not being able to perform service, was communicating that to our customers … who were confused about the whole situation,” Reininger said.

GroundsPro won a victory April 16 when the commission ruled that GroundsPRO’s stand-alone mulching services fall within the scope of landscaping services, previously deemed essential by the state.

“The Warren County and Clermont County health departments found that the Order permitted mulching services as a part of other landscaping or construction performed at a given premises,” the commission ruled. “It is the opinion of the Commission that this interpretation is correct in that mulching service is essential under the Order, but this work need not be coupled with other landscaping or construction work in order to be deemed essential.”

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That decision will now be applied equally across the state, according to the commission’s opinion.

A Butler County business deemed by the health district to be non-essential, Fumee Smoke and CBD in West Chester Twp., appealed that ruling to the commission, which denied the store’s request.

The commission ruled that the health department “properly interpreted or construed the Order in determining whether businesses selling cannabidiol (CBD) products are essential or not essential businesses.”

Ohio’s first three disputes were lodged by pet groomers at a Niles shop, including Alena Jones, owner of Ultimutt Pet Pawlour, after it was shut down by Trumbull County while Mahoning County allowed other groomers to remain open.

“There are other places that did open back up and that’s where the confusion comes from for a lot of groomers,” Jones said. “From what I’m gathering within the state of Ohio itself, there are still counties that are allowing people to groom.”

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Randazzo said the commission’s opinions are now precedents for disputes involving similar business activities and those decisions will generally not have to be reheard.

“Moving forward, when we get a request involving a pet grooming situation again, the stay at home order will be applied consistent with the determinations that we’ve already been made with regard to that case,” he said. “There will not be a need for that for us to revisit every pet grooming conflict in the state, we believe that we have addressed that and resolved that unless there are substantially different facts or circumstances.”

Randazzo said car washes are essential businesses provided there’s no direct employee contact with customers, no human-to-human contact or hand washing and drying of vehicles. One determining factor was car washes support governmental first responders, he said.