Ohio Republicans slammed over coronavirus enforcement

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. (Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images)

The coronavirus is raging in Ohio, but the state’s Republican leaders seem disinclined to enforce rules intended to protect against it.

Attorney General Dave Yost won’t say whether he’ll support enforcement of new orders to wear masks in the state’s hardest-hit counties. And the official who issued them, Gov. Mike DeWine, has made several statements indicating that he doesn’t want to see anybody punished for not following measures intended to slow the spread of the deadly disease.

Ohio set a record for new cases Friday — 1,525 — after seeing them trend sharply upward over the past few weeks. The case count was nearly triple the three-week average of 531.

The news comes as six other states — Alabama, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Oregon and Texas — set new single-day records of their own on Thursday. It also was the sixth day out of the past 10 in which the United States set one-day records for new cases of the coronavirus, which now has killed more than 3,000 in Ohio and more than 130,000 nationwide.

Also last week, a New York Times data analysis showed that the disease in the United States is taking on a disturbing racial dimension, with Blacks and Latinos around three times as likely as whites to get the new coronavirus.

The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control both have said that widespread mask wearing would reduce the spread of the disease. One study indicated that if 80% of people wore them, the spread would plummet to one twelfth what it would be if nobody did.

Yet Yost, the state’s top law-enforcement officer, last week didn’t respond to questions about whether he supports enforcement of last week’s orders that people in Ohio’s 12 hardest-hit counties must wear masks inside public buildings.

In late March, Yost ordered that many abortions be halted in Ohio, arguing that the move was intended to conserve healthcare resources in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

In June, he urged a municipal court to drop charges against a couple accused of opening their Cambridge-area restaurant in defiance of an earlier, DeWine-issued health order that it remain closed.

Then earlier this week, Yost said that the Columbus city government doesn’t have the power to enforce mask orders in state buildings — places where many Republican lawmakers have refused to wear them.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for Yost explained that the attorney general can’t have any official involvement in cases relating to health orders unless asked by local prosecutors. “We don’t have the authority,” the spokeswoman, Bethany McCorkle, said in a text message.

She added, however, that Yost has worn a mask since before there was a health order and encourages others to do the same.

The attorney general and his staff haven’t responded to subsequent questions about the order DeWine issued on Wednesday evening requiring masks in the worst-hit counties.

Ohio Democrats are already up in arms about Republican legislative leaders’ refusal to share details about the spread of coronavirus in the Statehouse and surrounding office towers. David Pepper, the party chairman, on Friday slammed the attorney general for his apparent reluctance to support the enforcement of mask orders.

“As far as Dave Yost is concerned, refusing to enforce health orders is just one more example that the Ohio GOP has become the party of Donald Trump, Nino Vitale and John Becker,” Pepper said in a text message. “Sadly Ohio COVID cases are spiking because of it.”

President Donald Trump has repeatedly downplayed the pandemic, floated unproven cures for it and refused to appear in public wearing a mask. Among his other statements, Ohio Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, last Tuesday took to Facebook to urge Ohioans to stop even getting tested for coronavirus. And Ohio Rep. John Becker, R-Union Township, has introduced legislation that would strip state officials of the power to enforce any health order.

Meanwhile, in the absence of much support from his party, DeWine has said he doesn’t plan to use his authority under his mask order to arrest people for not following it.

“We’re not talking about throwing people in jail,” DeWine said during a press conference Thursday. “This is a law to advise people what to do.”

DeWine has enjoyed overwhelming, bipartisan support over his handling of the coronavirus. But at least for Ohio’s top Democrat, patience might be wearing thin.

“Even though initially it appeared that Mike DeWine was being guided by scientists and public health experts, it seems that politics and the desires of the business community are driving more of the governor’s decision making now,” Pepper said. “Even with fewer cases, even West Virginia and Kentucky are being more proactive in addressing the pandemic.”