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As mask mandate begins for 7 Ohio counties, local communities confused about enforcement

Health departments and law enforcement agencies were wondering how they can enforce something they hadn't seen.

CLEVELAND — As of now, if you’re in or entering Cuyahoga County, you need to have a mask on per Governor Mike DeWine’s newest mask mandate for the seven Ohio counties with the most COVID-19 cases.

The seven counties also include Trumbull and Huron. 

“We thought that this was a surgical precise approach to go in those counties where they’re red hot frankly,” DeWine said Tuesday.

But which agency enforces it, and what is the penalty? No one seems to know.

When the mask mandate start time arrived at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, the order still had not been made public. It wasn't until 7 p.m. that the order finally came with with the signature of interim health director Lance Himes.

The seven counties selected come as a result of the state's tracking of its coronavirus numbers and a system it has adopted to assess the severity of its spread. The seven counties selected for the order are the counties currently in at the red level of the system, which is the second most severe behind purple. Any county that advances to the red level will be added to the order, while a reduction to Level 2 (orange) will drop the county from the order.

The text indicates three new indicators will be added to the alert system, revolving around contact tracing and testing data. However, these measures are "still under development."

Here is when residents in each county must wear the masks:

  • At any for-profit or non-profit business, educational entity, or government entity
  • Inside any indoor location that is not a residence
  • Outdoors when one is "unable to consistently maintain a distance of six feet or more from individuals"
  • Waiting for or riding in any vehicle coming from a ride sharing service, unless it is a rental car carrying only members of one household

People exempt from wearing masks include:

  • Children under 10 years of age
  • Those with certain medical conditions
  • Those communicative with the hearing-impaired
  • Those alone and in enclosed spaces
  • Those indoors engaged in physical activities in a gym, so long as social distancing requirements are met
  • Those participating in athletic practices or competitions
  • Law enforcement and other first responders
  • Those seating and eating food at a restaurant or bar
  • Members of the broadcast media
  • Religious leaders officiating services

The order will not supersede any similar local measure that is "more restrictive" that the state's guidelines. However, the ODH directive did not include any information regarding enforcement and possible penalties, meaning it will likely be up to individual municipalities to decide how that is done.

Before the order came down, communities were trying to get ahead of a flurry of calls that they fear will flood their switchboards about mask violators. 

“The mask mandate is a health department matter and all complaints will be referred to the county health department," the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office says. TCSO is also requesting that the public does not overwhelm the 911 call center with mask related calls – and asks that those calls are made directly to the health department.

Meanwhile in Bedford, the city's police department put out the below message on Facebook ahead of the 6 p.m. start of the mandate. 

RELATED: 'Don't put us in the middle': Bedford Police issue stance ahead of mask mandate taking effect

"All of these Health orders, issued since COVID started, have been enforced by the County Board of Health. During yesterdays news conference they stated that local law enforcement will handle enforcement of this order. That is not the case. Unless we receive clarification and direct instruction on enforcing this order we will not respond," the department wrote. 

Cuyahoga County officials are also waiting for a look at the order.

“The governor’s order regarding masks has not yet been made available for review, so we cannot offer a response at this time. We do not want to speculate about the contents of the order or any potential role our agency could play in terms of enforcement or regulation," says Kevin Brennan of the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.

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