Ohio arrests thousands of drunken drivers in the face of far fewer deaths. Why not bust people for not following mask orders?

By: - July 17, 2020 12:50 am

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

After weeks of reluctance, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Thursday said that at least on a limited basis, he’d start enforcing mask-wearing orders in the Ohio counties hardest hit by coronavirus.

The governor also hinted that he might skip the Republican National Convention scheduled next month in Florida, which currently is the nation’s worst coronavirus hot spot.

But the governor repeated that he didn’t want to arrest anybody for not following mask orders aimed at slowing the spread of a pandemic that’s been much more deadly than drunken driving — for which thousands of Ohioans are arrested every year.

The recent news about the disease in Ohio has been bad and getting worse. On Thursday, the 24-hour counts for new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths all were significantly over their 21-day averages. Also, state health officials moved six more counties into the “red” category, the second-highest level of alert.

Residents of the 19 such counties — comprising 60% of Ohio’s population — are subject to DeWine’s mask-wearing orders. They include Ohio’s six most-populous counties, including Franklin.

Hamilton and Butler counties are no longer on the edge of tipping into the highest level of alert, but Athens County was added to the list of “red” counties and designated as being on the verge of going “purple” at the same time. Outbreaks in three bars in the college town of Athens are partly to blame for the surge, DeWine said.

In the face of surging infections, DeWine has imposed mask orders, but he’s said he didn’t plan to arrest those who disobey them. He repeated that reluctance in a statewide address Wednesday evening.

“The truth is, what your local health department, the Ohio Department of Health or what I order is not nearly as important as what we all do — what we all do — in these crucial days ahead,” he said. “Our future truly lies in our own hands.”

On Thursday, however, DeWine said state officials are engaged in at least a limited form of enforcement. The Ohio Investigative Unit, which typically enforces liquor laws is now working with the Ohio Department of Health to crack down on bars that are ignoring the governor’s mask orders.

But what about individuals who refuse to follow orders to wear masks in public spaces in hot-spot counties? If drunken drivers can be arrested for endangering the public safety, why not people who won’t take minimal steps to stop the spread of a disease that’s already killed more than 3,000 Ohioans?

By comparison, the Highway Patrol reports that more than 8,000 drunken driving arrests have been made so far this year, while 555 — less than a fifth of Ohio’s COVID-19 deaths since March — have been killed in vehicle crashes attributable to any cause.

“I don’t think we quite said we aren’t going to enforce it,” DeWine said of his mask orders. “What we said is we’re not going to lock people up. That’s not the idea. The law can be a teacher. We’re seeing that today where the mask order has fundamentally changed people’s behavior.”

The governor was referring to the slowing spread of coronavirus cases in Hamilton and Butler counties, where he said the culture around mask wearing has changed in recent days. 

Pressed again about mask orders and their enforcement, DeWine said that “it might come to” imposing a statewide mask order and that “I will do whatever it takes to keep people in Ohio safe.”

But then he again emphasized that he didn’t want to force masks onto peoples’ faces.

“My experience in life is that people generally respond better when you ask them to do something than when you tell them to do something,” he said, later adding, “People would rather be asked than told.”

DeWine also was asked whether he planned to attend the GOP convention that is slated to take place next month in a sweltering Jacksonville in s state that saw 15,300 new coronavirus cases just on Sunday. Several prominent Republicans already have said they’re out, and DeWine seemed to hint strongly on Thursday that he is as well.

“We’ll see,” DeWine said. “I’m not going to make that decision. I don’t have to make that decision. But candidly, virtually every waking hour I’m focused on Ohio and even the thought of being away from Ohio for that long of a period of time is not something that I think is a great idea. But we’ll see.”

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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.