Thousands head to polls as COVID-19 afflicts record numbers of Ohioans

Voters in line. Photo by John McCosh.

On March 16, the state health department reported that 13 more Ohioans tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the cumulative known caseload to 50.

Just after 10 p.m., Gov. Mike DeWine announced that Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton issued an order delaying the primary election, scheduled for the next day.

The announcement seemingly ignored Common Pleas Judge Richard Frye’s rejection of a lawsuit just hours earlier seeking to delay the election. DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose helped orchestrate the lawsuit.

Acton’s order cited the “imminent threat” of “widespread exposure” to COVID-19.

“It is clear from history and experience that large number[s] of people gather at polling locations which increases the risk of transmission of COVID-19,” the order states. “To conduct an election at this time would force poll workers and voters to face an unacceptable risk of contracting COVID-19.”

Times have changed.

On Monday, ODH reported 2,900 more Ohioans contracted COVID-19. More than 1,800 are currently in the hospital with the disease, and more than 5,300 have died since March.

Regardless, thousands of Ohioans will pour into poll locations Tuesday to pick a president, two state Supreme Court justices, state senators and representatives, and scores of down-ballot candidates and issues.

Of course, there are some key differences: our collective understanding of the virus, how it spreads and who’s at risk has evolved; our risk tolerance has developed while we figure out how to navigate ordinary life during an extraordinary health crisis; evidence-backed personal protective equipment is more readily available; and the state has more control over its primary election than a general election.

The contrast is nonetheless stark.

The incubation period for COVID-19 can be up to 14 days, according to the CDC. Over the last 14-day period ending Monday, more than 38,000 Ohioans contracted COVID-19. The close contacts (within six feet for a total of 15 minutes or more) of people known to be infected are advised to quarantine as well.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose issued guidance to county boards of elections, advising them to utilize curbside voting for people who tested positive or may have been exposed to COVID-19.

“No matter what, every eligible voter who wishes to vote must be permitted to do so after they are asked to consider safer alternatives,” the guidance states.

A spokeswoman said Tuesday LaRose has also implemented an emergency option, allowing people who have been ordered to isolate or quarantine since noon Saturday to request an absentee ballot before 3 p.m. Tuesday.

Melanie Amato, an ODH spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the department does not plan on issuing any orders to halt the election or prevent anyone from voting.

“The state of Ohio has now had nine months to learn and study COVID-19,” she said. “When the original order was issued in March, Ohio was just starting to have positive cases. We were still learning and did not have the precautions in place that we do now. Now with a mask mandate, social distancing, safety precautions for poll workers and more knowledge about the virus, we feel people can remain safe when heading to the polls.”

State lawmakers went on to rework the primary into an all-mail affair with an April 28 deadline. What effect, if any, the coronavirus could have on Tuesday’s election remains unclear.

As of 2 p.m. Monday, LaRose said 3.4 million Ohioans have cast their ballot early in person, via drop box, or by mail. One day before the 2016 election, that number was 1.8 million.

The presidential race has in many ways been defined by the pandemic. President Donald Trump has insisted, without evidence, the pandemic is “rounding the corner.” The campaign has hosted large-scale rallies with few wearing masks or social distancing. Trump has spent months downplaying the virus and caricaturizing it as a media hoax. He floated the idea of firing the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, on Sunday after Fauci criticized Trump’s handling of the pandemic in an interview with The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, Democratic challenger Joe Biden has generally opted against large rallies, frequently wears his mask during public appearances, and criticizes the president for hosting “super spreader” events — including one at the White House believed to have infected Trump and more than 20 contacts including aides, U.S. Senators and journalists.

In Ottawa County, the virus and the election are set to literally converge: The county health department’s boardroom has been retooled into a poll location.

According to Cleveland.com, the county has picked the winner of the presidential race in each of the last 14 elections. It turned red Oct. 22 on Ohio’s Public Health Advisory System map, indicating “very high rates of exposure and spread.”

Health Commissioner Jerry Bingham said he’s focused on stopping spread within households and at social gatherings. If people wear masks and socially distance at the polls, voting will be safe, but he said everybody must buy in.

“Back in March, this was such a new virus,” he said. “Over the months, there have been a lot of new discoveries about what works well, what doesn’t, how infectious it is. I’d say we know a lot more about the virus than in March.”

That said, LaRose’s guidance to boards of election hints at the bitter national divide regarding masks. It says poll workers should “encourage” voters to wear masks but cannot force them to.

“Do not engage in underlying issues that may factor into the objection,” the guidance warns.

The CDC offers its own guidance for voting during the pandemic: masks, hand hygiene, social distancing, and getting in and out as quickly as possible.

“Voters who are sick or in quarantine should take steps to protect poll workers and other voters,” it states. “This includes wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet away from others, and washing your hands or using hand sanitizer before and after voting. You should also let poll workers know that you are sick or in quarantine when you arrive at the polling location. Check with local authorities for any additional guidance.”

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