Conflicts rise on Ohio response to coronavirus: What Butler County officials say

The novel coronavirus pandemic has created a sharp line between those who support Ohio’s and Gov. Mike DeWine’s orders related to business closures and precautions and those who believe the state should reopen immediately.

Some, like Middletown Health Director Jackie Phillips, said Ohio’s “probably opening up too early.” Others want Ohio opened for different reasons: halting the economic tailspin halted, belief the DeWine administration is governing through fear or belief the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax.

Those who support the decisions say that the consequences to public health and possible overloading of health care systems were too dire to ignore. They add that the reported data do not show the real depth of the coronavirus issue because limitations on testing have not shown the true level of cases and deaths connected directly to the virus.

Some of those who want Ohio opened due to the eye-popping unemployment, which was caused by Ohio business orders or other economic slowdown due to the virus. Last weekend’s Open Ohio Now! rally in front of the historic Butler County Courthouse demanded orders be reversed that either shuttered businesses or forced owners to have employees work from home.

Todd Minniear, one of the Open Ohio Now! co-organizers, said that while he believes DeWine, Acton and others are concerned about the health and welfare of the state, they have “been focused on creating fear.”

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“Fear is more powerful than force,” said Minninear, a Butler County GOP Central Committee member. “People are not doing the hard work of researching the facts are at the mercy of his message.”

Last week, there were more then 26,000 total COVID-19 cases reported since the first emerged in early March in Cuyahoga County. The DeWine administration said these numbers are likely underreported because primary care doctors have told patients not to get tested if their symptoms are mild.

DeWine said Ohioans flattened the curve because the total deaths could have been far worse than the more than 1,500 reported so far.

Ohio Rep. George Lang, R-West Chester Twp., the GOP’s nominee for the 4th Ohio Senate District seat, was one of the speakers at last Saturday’s rally in Hamilton.

“I think early on in the COVID-19 (pandemic), the evidence certainly appeared real,” Lang said. “But I think we have enough empirical data now to show, ‘Hey, we were wrong.’ We made some bad choices, and the devastation will take us decades to undo.”

Lang said he gives the governor credit because “given the exact same circumstances, I think 99 percent of us would have come to the same conclusion. But now … we have data to say, ‘Hey, they were wrong.’”

Cedarville University political science professor Mark C. Smith said initial reactions to DeWine’s orders were “positive and bipartisan.” However, Smith said many did not foresee the economic fallout that followed. Ohio and other states enacted similar rules, such as stay-at-home orders, closing of schools, and measures that impacted jobs and economic prosperity.

“As time elapsed, some began to question his decisions,” Smith said. “There is real economic hardship for many, and social media and protesting are outlets for that frustration.”

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Governors in many states have felt the ire of their residents as millions across the nation became unemployed, following stay-at-home or lockdown protocols.

But the pandemic has developed into a “highly politicized” issue over the past several weeks, Smith said.

“As President Trump began to undermine his own national experts, by calling for the ‘liberation’ of certain states, people across the country started to respond,” he said.

Now, it’s becoming a political statement to wear, or not wear, a mask, he said.

“For some citizens, wearing a mask symbolizes a willingness to accept authoritarianism, while refusing to wear one is a sign of freedom and liberation,” Smith said. “For others, wearing a mask is taking responsibility for yourself and others, while not wearing one makes people irrational and selfish.”

Earlier this month, DeWine said it’s every citizen’s right to criticize him.

“I’ve made it very clear that the buck stops with me,” DeWine said. “These decisions are my decisions, and when people don’t like them they should take that up with me.”

Leaders of Butler County’s two major political parties agree DeWine has done his best given the information presented to him.

“He believes he is protecting Ohioans, and the lockdown has almost assuredly helped flatten the curve,” said Butler County GOP Executive Chairman Todd Hall.

However, he said it’s “imperative that we open this economy soon.”

“The virus was a real threat, but so is record unemployment and businesses closing down,” Hall said. “This affects even more people, in the long run. It all comes down to a good plan, understanding a new set of social norms, and people reacting responsibly. It’s time to move forward, wisely.”

General retail businesses reopened Tuesday, outdoor dining, salons and barbers, massage services, and tattoo parlors reopened on Friday.

Brian Hester, Butler County’s Democratic executive chairman, faults DeWine, saying he’s “focusing too much on what businesses want while virtually ignoring entirely what workers need to return to work safely. DeWine’s reopen plan has been uneven and seems to be motivated by which groups make the most noise.”

Hester said DeWine’s plan ignores working parents with childcare needs, and opening massage parlors before day care centers “makes zero sense to me.”

“DeWine has an approval rating around 70 percent to 80 percent for a reason, but if he mishandles this reopening, his public standing will change fast,” Hester said.

Protests like the one last Saturday in Hamilton happened in other corners of the state and have been a regular occurrence outside the Statehouse.

Hall said he understands all sides of the issues and why people are protesting DeWine.

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“I am always for freedom of speech and have no problem when people question government policy,” he said. “Those who are opposed to protests forget how our nation was formed, how Susan B. Anthony and so many others fought for and achieved Woman’s Suffrage, how Martin Luther King and so many others walked and bled for Civil Rights. There is always room for debate, discourse and opposing views. This is America, and we should always be free to challenge the status quo.”

Hester said the First Amendment gives every American the right to protest, but “the whole point of shutting things down was to give the federal and state government time to really ramp up the availability of testing, tracing and treatment of cases. It seems like we’ve made pitiful progress in all three.”

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