Southeast Ohio town grapples with unusual conflict over masks, COVID-19

A surgical mask and an N95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Cheryl Gordon keeps a “Stand with Smitty” sign hanging in her front window.

It supports Logan-Hocking School resource officer Chris “Smitty” Smith, who made national news last month after he told a woman attending a football game that she had put on a mask because of the pandemic rules — or leave.

When the woman repeatedly refused to do either, Smith tried to escort her out of the stadium, but the situation escalated, ending with Smith shocking the woman with his taser and handcuffing her in the bleachers.

Smith charged the woman with criminal trespassing and released her outside the school, but their struggle — which was videotaped by a bystander and went viral — divided much of the nation and Logan, a town of about 7,000 people on the Hocking River about 50 miles southeast of Columbus.

Gordon said people in Logan don’t talk much about national politics face-to-face unless they know they agree.

“I think people are afraid to offend other people or just don’t want to get that in-depth,” she said during a Your Voice Ohio (YVO) Zoom meeting Oct. 8.

But with trouble at the school, many Logan residents couldn’t avoid talking politics.

The primary issue was masks, and what has become the politics of wearing one, or not. 

But policing and race also were wrapped up in the discussion. 

“He’s a Black cop in a very white town and the woman he engaged with was a white lady, so it was very interesting to see the reactions,” said Gordon, who retired from teaching at the same district last year. 

“A lot of people who would be by default ‘Back the Blue’ are also the questioners of mask wearing,” Gordon said. 

“So their beliefs were kind of butting heads. This lady didn’t want to wear a mask. This police officer wanted her to. So who do you support there?”

There were some threats, but locals ended up rallying at the police station on behalf of Smith, who had a long history of working well with kids in the schools.

Ray Chorey, who lives in Cambridge on the Appalachian Plateau, about 72 miles east of Logan, said the Smith videotape prompted conversations in his town of 10,000, too.

But hearing political discussions there, too, is unusual.

“We’re concerned, but just enough redneck here not to pick a fight,” he said.

Since the pandemic, he said everything has seemed to slow down. 

“There’s a lot more people outside, more people walking, parents pushing strollers around,” Chorey said. “It’s like growing up in a small town I grew up back in the ’60s,” where everyone knew each other.

Yet that friendly public interaction doesn’t reflect their private politics or the extraordinary divisions in Southeast Ohio or across the nation.

Chorey and Gordon were the only Southeast Ohio residents in the Oct. 8 YVO regional Zoom meeting, but people in each of Ohio’s other four regions mentioned how everyone they choose to interact with — outside of their own families and co-workers — shares their beliefs.

“You get into little bubbles,” is how Gordon explained it.

Chorey thinks this started during the last election cycle once it was clear Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would face off.

He remembers having those initial conversations, “veins would pop a little bit, the voice goes up and the hands started flying,” he said. “This time, don’t go there because you know it’s going to be worse than it was four years ago.”

Chorey — who spent the first 30 years of his career in finance along the Ohio River and the next 15 as CEO of a local hospital — quoted an old leadership mantra: Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

Now, though, Chorey said “everybody wants their own facts to support their own opinions.”

To get past that, he said, maybe people should try to start a political conversation with an open-ended question, like, “Why do you feel that way?”

Even if you’re coming at it from two directions, you may see points where you agree, he said.

But maybe not until after the election, when Gordon hopes the nation’s social temperature cools.

This autumn, when the Trump and Joe Biden signs began popping up in Logan, Gordon started looking differently at her neighbors.

“I do tend to get a little bit ‘judgy’,” Gordon said. “I’m so disappointed so-and-so has that sign, or, ‘Yay!, so-in-so has this sign.’ ”

But she doesn’t try to change minds, even after her next door neighbor put up political signs that opposed hers.

This month, when the neighbor went out of town leaving her children behind, Gordon was still the contact if the kids needed anything.

“We’re still amiable with each other,” Gordon said. “It’s not bitter.”

But, of course, they’re not talking politics.

Amanda Garrett is a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal and can be emailed at [email protected].

Want to volunteer for a future dialogue and receive $125 for two hours? Register at the Your Voice Ohio Election 2020 website.

About this project

This is one in a series of stories on issues Ohioans say are most important in this election year. More than 50 news outlets are collaborating in the project under the umbrella of Your Voice Ohio, the nation’s largest sustained, statewide news media collaborative. In five years, Your Voice Ohio has brought more than 100 journalists together with more than 1,300 Ohioans for discussions on addiction, the economy and elections. Your Voice Ohio is managed and coordinated by the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic engagement organization. The project is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and Facebook. The Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes designs and facilitates the dialogues and digital forums. Retired Akron Beacon Journal managing editor Doug Oplinger directs the media work and can be reached at [email protected].

Five Ohios

For the Your Voice Ohio 2020 Election listening project, the state’s 88 counties were divided into five regions identified by John Green, emeritus director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, as having political and demographic similarities.

How participants were selected

Six people were recruited to participate with three journalists in each regional dialogue designed and facilitated by Kyle Bozentko and Sarah Atwood from the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes, a St. Paul-based non-partisan, non-profit research organization.

There was an attempt to make each dialogue demographically representative, though that was problematic in some regions, particularly in the Southeast where there were broadband challenges. Overall, the dialogues were representative of Ohio, based on Census data obtained by former Akron Beacon Journal data reporter David Knox.

A pool of about 1,000 volunteers was created through invitations published by Ohio news outlets and from advertisements on social media. To encourage a diverse group of volunteers, $125 was offered to those who answered basic demographic questions, participated in a test call, and then completed the two-hour online dialogue.

For the conversations, participants were granted anonymity with the understanding that what they said could be used in news stories without their names. They were asked afterward if they were willing to be quoted by name and participate in a follow-up conversation with a reporter. Most agreed.

Participating journalists were recruited from the more than 50 Your Voice Ohio news outlets. One reporter attended all five sessions and wrote the central narrative, a regional reporter in each helped identify themes and nuances. A third is guiding the Your Voice Ohio journalism and has attended all sessions since 2016.

Finding help with your ballot

There are organizations that attempt to provide fair representations of candidates and issues so that you can cast an informed ballot. 

Below are some of those resources:

  • Ballotpedia is a national organization that compiles information about federal and state candidates and some local races and issues The Ohio page is the place to begin.
  • Public radio stations in Ohio, led by WKSU FM 89.7, and with the help of Eye on Ohio and Your Voice Ohio, attempted to ask federal and state legislative candidates questions on your behalf. The questions were formulated after asking Ohioans in a statewide poll to name their most important concerns, followed by dialogues to gain better understanding of those issues. Unfortunately, candidates have been slow to respond. Those who have answered the questions can be found at this site, and new answers are added as they arrive. Disappointed that your candidate isn’t represented? Tell them that you’d like answers to questions that come from the more than 50 Your Voice Ohio news outlets that are attempting to represent your concerns.
  • As a part of its Civics Essential series, Issue Media Group news outlets in Ohio provided this primer on voting for judges. In the story are links to organizations offering appraisals of candidates for state and local judges. Outlets in the Issue Media Group are Soapbox Cincinnati, Freshwater Cleveland and The Hub Springfield.
  • Also as a part of the Civics Essential series, Issue Media Group news outlets in Ohio provided a guide to casting an informed vote on local issues. This story contains links that may be helpful.

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Amanda Garrett, Akron Beacon Journal
Amanda has covered news across the state of Ohio for more than 20 years. She specializes in making complex stories easier to understand, often through narrative storytelling. She's covered everything from public corruption and terrorism to spelling bees and Santa Claus. Before landing at The Akron Beacon Journal in 2015, she worked for 14 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, mostly on the projects/enterprise team. Before that, she wrote for smaller dailies in Northeast Ohio, The Cincinnati Post and the Raleigh/Durham News&Observer. Amanda has a special interest in eldercare, having paused her own career for three years to care for her own parents in failing health. She and her husband, the senior editor at The Plain Dealer, share a home with a 90-pound dog, three cats and a never-ending stream of news.