Rep. Brigid Kelly wants to see the Ohio General Assembly embrace legislating by virtual means as the state keeps battling the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether the legislature meets in person or by video conference, the Cincinnati Democrat would like constituents to be able to testify for and against bills through digital means.
And if hearings and floor sessions continue to be held in person, Kelly wants everyone to wear a mask just as Ohioans are required to do in nearly all other public indoor spaces.
Kelly offered sponsor testimony on Thursday morning for two bills to allow for virtual committee hearings and sessions along with requiring masks be worn at the Statehouse. She has the support of the entire House Democratic caucus, as well as 75 advocacy organizations who have called for virtual testimony while the pandemic is ongoing.
If enacted, the legislation would not require hearings and sessions be conducted remotely, only that it become an option while the state’s emergency declaration is in effect.
These proposals appear to be longshots in a Republican-controlled legislature in which members have flouted mask wearing, eschewed contact tracing and targeted the authority of state health officials to respond to a pandemic.
The Statehouse is exempt from the statewide facial coverings mandate, and dozens of Republican lawmakers view mask wearing to be a matter of personal choice. Accordingly, they choose not to wear them, even when in close contact with colleagues and visitors. Other Republicans who do wear masks frequently take them off while speaking.
In Ohio’s legislative seat of government, taking steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus is not just a political disagreement about mandates vs. choice. There are still debates within the Statehouse on the effectiveness of masks and about other established facts related to the COVID-19 virus.
Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Green Twp., questioned if guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could be trusted and expressed concern about a slippery slope.
“You say you want to follow the science, but as I understand your bill, we would only have to wear one mask. But if we’re really going to follow the science, why doesn’t your bill say two masks, or two months from now three masks, or three months from now five masks? I mean, it gets a little ridiculous. So I guess my question there is, why are you saying only one mask when your own research substantiates it should be two masks today?” Seitz asked, wearing no mask at all.
Kelly answered that one mask is better than nothing, and that she’d welcome an amendment to the bill to require two instead if members preferred.
The biggest skepticism on Thursday came from Rep. Don Jones, R-Freeport, who said he was the last person at his church to decide to wear a mask.
“I respect the choice of every Ohioan to decide whether or not they are going to cover their face with something for whatever reason,” Jones said.
Kelly noted throughout the hearings that a person’s choice to not wear a mask can affect other people if the virus is spread. Democrats referenced the hospitalization of two lawmakers last December following a Statehouse outbreak of COVID-19. More recently, Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, left a committee hearing room as a response to many people testifying without masks.
I left Govt Oversight today because the committee room looked like this.
We are in the middle of a pandemic with a virus that is highly transmittable.
My daughter has a severely compromised immune system and I won’t sit there and put her health at risk. https://t.co/9WCiyoZoTq
— Senator Cecil Thomas (@CecilThomasOH) February 3, 2021
Jones went on to suggest that masks themselves were the cause of Ohio’s rise in COVID-19 cases last year.
“There are people on both sides of this issue, and we can make the argument of why not to wear a mask,” Jones said. “I’ve had several family members that have gotten the virus. I’ll be honest, they were the ones that wore the mask … We started requiring all these masks, and our numbers started to go up. It makes me question some of the things we are doing.”
Public health experts have continued to explain the science behind face coverings, including on Wednesday when testifying against a separate bill seeking to allow lawmakers to strike down health orders.
Kelly said her legislation is designed to provide a safe environment for lawmakers and visitors alike.
“If we don’t want to wear masks, let’s have virtual meetings,” she said. “You don’t want to have virtual meetings, then let’s have a mask requirement. It’s something where, you know, we can choose how we want to best protect ourselves and the people we represent.”