COLUMBUS, Ohio — Gov. Mike DeWine has outlined specific metrics the state can hit to trigger an end to Ohio’s public health orders, including the mandate to wear facial coverings in public.
A group of Republican legislators thinks it’s already time to remove the mask mandate.
Rep. Jena Powell, R-Arcanum, recently introduced House Bill 202 to terminate the existing mask mandate. The bill would also prohibit the state from reissuing a requirement to wear masks unless the General Assembly approves such a plan. Two-dozen Republicans have signed on as cosponsors to the bill.
Powell’s bill was formally introduced on March 10, the same day legislators passed Senate Bill 22 to allow themselves to strike down public health orders they disagree with. DeWine has pledged to veto the bill and Statehouse leaders said they intend to hold votes to override his veto.
If the override is successful, that bill would not go into effect until later this summer. Supporters of SB 22 have said the law is not meant to target the authority of state health officials, but rather ensure there is legislative oversight for any future crises.
HB 202 shows there is still a legislative appetite among some in the GOP caucus to curb the power of DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health to respond to the ongoing pandemic. Members are maintaining pressure against DeWine even as his administration has laid out details on how the state will navigate its way through the pandemic’s final stages.
Powell’s bill as written does not include an emergency clause, meaning it too would not go into effect until months after it is potentially approved by the Republican-controlled legislature. DeWine has said his hope is that health orders would already be nullified by this summer — through diminished case counts and a large portion of the Ohio population getting vaccinated.
Powell believes the current outlook is such that the mask mandate should be removed now.
“Cases are decreasing dramatically, and vaccine distribution is increasing rapidly,” Powell said in a statement announcing HB 202. “This bill supports individual freedom, and allows Ohioans to make the choice of whether or not they voluntarily want to wear a mask.”
Powell has been one of the harshest critics of the DeWine administration’s aggressive approach to fighting the virus, condemning the health orders while case counts were still high and before the vaccine became available. The Darke County native railed against masks and health orders last fall while her home county became a COVID-19 hot spot.
When the governor reissued the mask mandate for retail stores last November amid a statewide rise in cases, Powell complained that Ohio looked “more like a socialist state than a free market society.” As DeWine and health officials urged Ohioans to keep their holiday gatherings small to prevent virus spread, Powell encouraged her constituents to ignore that advice and instead get together for Thanksgiving. Within weeks, Darke County recorded the highest occurrence of COVID-19 in the entire state.
The county’s numbers stayed high in December, but by January things had settled down there. It is currently in much better shape, though to date the county of around 51,000 residents has recorded more than 5,000 total cases, 300 hospitalizations and 116 deaths, according to the Ohio COVID-19 dashboard.
The governor recently visited the Darke County seat of Greenville as part of his ongoing tour of vaccination facilities around the state. The Sidney Daily News quoted DeWine as criticizing Powell’s legislation to end the mask mandate.
“We need to play defense a little while longer with these masks. These masks work exceedingly well,” DeWine told the newspaper. “The reason we are in the position we are today is two things: We have the vaccine, which is on offense, and we’re driving hard … but for a little while longer we’ve got to play defense.”
HB 202 has not yet been assigned to a committee; many similar COVID-19 bills in the Ohio House have been referred to the State and Local Government Committee, chaired by Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster, who is an HB 202 cosponsor.
While SB 22 that DeWine intends to veto was fast-tracked through the legislative process, it is unclear if a bill specifically targeting the government’s pandemic response will get similar treatment in 2021. A separate Republican bill seeking to vacate all COVID-19 health violations was introduced a month ago and has received one committee hearing.
In 2020, Republicans introduced bills to end the state of emergency declaration; reinstate normal bar hours; prevent the state from interfering with an election date; and strike down the health order limiting activities at county fairs. The latter was passed by the legislature but eventually vetoed by DeWine.