Coronavirus masks: the Ohio legislature’s new partisan divide

Lawmakers sit in the hallway outside the House chamber watching a stream of the ongoing floor debate as a means of social distancing. Photo by Jake Zuckerman

Votes and face coverings alike fell along party lines Wednesday.

With few exceptions, Ohio’s Republican lawmakers flouted federal guidelines recommending everyone wear masks in congregate settings. Democrats heeded them.

Barefaced, Speaker of the House Larry Householder, R-Glenford, said he didn’t even own a mask.

“It’s just a personal matter for people,” he said to a gaggle of masked reporters. “Some are comfortable with it and some aren’t.”

Masks have quickly become the newest frontier of partisanship and cultural flashpoint. Recently, when President Donald Trump toured a mask manufacturer’s facility in Arizona and Vice President Mike Pence visited the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, both men declined to don masks (Pence later acknowledged he should have). A security guard at a Family Dollar in Michigan was shot and killed Friday after turning away a customer who refused to wear one. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine quickly repealed a mandate last week requiring Ohioans wear masks when they patronize businesses after facing blowback from his own party.

Householder’s remarks Wednesday came after the House voted to limit DeWine and state Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton’s powers to issue public health directives. The vote fell largely on party lines.

Rep. Dave Greenspan, R-Westlake, one of few Republicans to wear a mask, voted with Democrats.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends the use of masks in public to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, a respiratory disease. The agency offered the guidance citing research indicating a significant portion of people carrying the virus are asymptomatic or presymptomatic — they don’t know they’re sick.

The World Health Organization advises masks can prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, the organization recommends decision-makers use risk assessments to decide whether to mandate masks, due to mask shortages and the possibility they lull wearers into a false sense of security.

In interviews, GOP lawmakers expressed a general distrust of the science behind the use of masks.

“I don’t think I’m at increased risk of contracting the disease and insofar as I know, I don’t have it, so I’m not at increased risk of transmitting it,” said Sen. John Eklund, R-Munson Twp.

He said he believed masks are primarily used to train people to keep their hands off their face (an ingress point for the virus) rather than preventing the spread of the disease.

Rep. J. Todd Smith, R-Jackson Twp., offered several reasons he does not wear a mask. He claimed the science is in dispute, that it’s too late in the pandemic to bother now (“no need to shut the door when the horse is already out of the barn”), and others.

“Obviously, if you’re not wearing a mask correctly, it’s not going to help you. It’s going to help me. And if you’re wearing yours, would it hinder me to not wear one?” he said.

“I don’t like things in my face,” he added.

Earlier this week, Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, said he won’t wear a mask because faces are the “likeness of God.”

In interviews, Democratic lawmakers said they wore masks to protect their colleagues and coworkers. Some later posted to social media touting their masks.

“As a health care provider, I want to do everything I can to keep people healthy and safe,” said Rep. Beth Liston, D-Dublin, who is also a physician. “There are a lot of things that go into decreasing the spread of the coronavirus, this is one that I can do to help minimize the odds.”

Rep. Thomas West, D-Akron, said along with slowing the spread, he wore a mask to be a model for private industry.

“We need to be an example for the rest of the state showing that when they go back to work, that we’re making sure we’re protecting the people that are coming in our doors,” he said.

Sen. Dave Burke, R-Marysville, didn’t wear a mask. He had one with him, but said if he maintains social distancing, it’s not needed.

He noticed the party-line split on mask-wearing but said it might not be political. Democrats, he noted, tend to represent Ohio’s urban areas, which harbor most of the state’s caseload.

“I think it’s probably environmental, I don’t think it’s political,” he said.

As of Wednesday, more than 21,500 Ohioans have COVID-19. At least 4,000 have been hospitalized, and 1,225 people have died from the new disease.

Nationwide, 1.22 million Americans have been infected, more than 73,000 of whom have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, accessed Wednesday evening.