GOP bill: Let lawmakers, not health director, decide who wears masks

State Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana. Photo from Ohio House website.

A Republican legislator wants his fellow lawmakers to be the ones deciding who should or shouldn’t wear face coverings, not the state health department or Gov. Mike DeWine.

That’s the purpose of House Bill 682, sponsored by state Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, and co-sponsored by 11 other Republican state representatives. It was introduced Wednesday.

The bill proposes that only the state legislature have the “authority to require that all residents of the state wear a face mask or covering.”

The only exception given is for “any occupation or profession that requires a person to wear a face mask or covering in order to engage in that occupation or profession.”

Though the bill does not mention the pandemic, Vitale has been the most vehement critic within the legislature against DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton. He has repeatedly referred to DeWine as an “emperor” and Acton as a “dictator” for having enacted and enforced various health orders during the COVID-19 crisis.

Vitale has also speculated that Bill Gates created the coronavirus; had a YouTube video taken down for having shared misinformation; and has told constituents on Facebook that wearing a mask would cause the disease to spread. The latter post was labeled by Facebook’s fact checkers as being “False Information.”

There is no current requirement that “all residents of the state wear a face mask or covering.” DeWine had initially proposed implementing such a requirement, but quickly reversed course after receiving backlash from citizens and some members of the legislature.

Instead, DeWine and Acton have required that Ohio workers be forced to wear coverings while on the job. Customers are not required to wear them, but are encouraged to do so. (Business owners are being given the choice to require masks in their establishments, but it is not mandated by the state.)

Gov. Mike DeWine is seen during a COVID-19 press conference. (Screenshot courtesy OhioChannel)

Vitale’s bill would require a two-thirds majority vote in each legislative chamber to approve a widespread mask mandate. Bills ordinarily require only a simple majority.

Masks have been a point of dispute among members of the Ohio General Assembly, particularly in the Ohio House of Representatives. Democrats have uniformly worn masks to legislative sessions and committee hearings, while only some Republicans do. The House voted down a resolution to require masks be worn at the Statehouse, with all 60 Republicans voting in opposition.

This bill is among a broader effort from Ohio Republicans to curb the powers of the Ohio Department of Health to react to a health crisis. The Ohio Revised Code provides wide lateral to the health director to to make “special or standing orders or rules … for preventing the spread of contagious or infectious diseases.”

There have been a number of other bills proposed this month which seek to rescind or redirect that authority:

  • Amended Senate Bill 1 (passed by the Ohio House): Would subject some orders by the state health director to legislative review
  • House Bill 618: Requires similar legislative review and reopens all of Ohio.
  • House Bill 621: Prohibits the closure of any business if it sells the same product(s) as another business that is allowed to stay open.
  • House Bill 649: Similarly subjects some health orders to legislative review; prohibits the director from issuing “mandatory quarantine” to those not exposed or diagnosed to the disease; prohibits the “closure of business property”; and prohibits mandated virus testing.
  • House Bill 671: Requires similar legislative review; allows businesses to appeal health orders in court; and specifics that “certain” health orders do not apply to public entities like the Ohio General Assembly and state courts.

Here is a chart detailing the Republican support for these bills in the Ohio House of Representatives: