Bill would remove biz penalties for violating COVID-19 health orders

Photo of an Ottawa County bar cited with social distancing violations. Photo courtesy of OIU.

A Republican lawmaker wants to spare Ohio businesses from facing consequences for violating public health orders enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Rep. Derek Merrin
Rep. Derek Merrin, R-Monclova Township. Statehouse photo.

Rep. Derek Merrin, R-Monclova, introduced House Bill 127 to halt enforcement of coronavirus health orders going forward. It would also require the state to reimburse businesses fined for having violated health orders since the pandemic began. 

“Ohio businesses and job creators have suffered enough,” Merrin wrote on Facebook. “Hundreds of businesses have been harassed, cited, and fined by government bureaucrats for ‘supposedly’ not abiding by Covid orders.”

The Ohio Department of Health ordered many businesses to close last spring when the first cases and deaths of COVID-19 were reported. The state gradually allowed these businesses to reopen, with industry-specific health guidelines in place. Bars, for example, were able to reopen so long as patrons kept a suitable distance from one another. 

A number of establishments, from Put-in-Bay to Athens, were cited for not following these requirements. 

An Ohio Investigative Unit photo from last summer shows a bar scene at Put-in-Bay, with patrons not following proper social distancing requirements. A proposed bill would prevent the state from issuing fines or other penalties against businesses for violating COVID-19 public health orders.

The state enacted a public mask mandate over the summer. In November, with cases and deaths hitting record highs, DeWine outlined a new health order with stricter enforcement of the mask and distancing rules.

The November order authorized local health departments, law enforcement agencies and the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation to conduct business inspections. Businesses would receive warnings and even potentially be shut down for 24 hours if not in compliance, to “allow dissipation of COVID-19 airborne droplets.” A Republican state senator tried unsuccessfully to get the order rescinded.

Merrin complained that the state’s health orders are “constantly changing” and called it “impossible” for businesses to control every movement of customers and employers. 

House Bill 127 would make the state refund any business that has been fined for violating an order issued by the state health department or by Gov. Mike DeWine. The state would also need to take steps to “restore any rights or privileges lost as a result of a finding of violation,” such as a revoked business license. The record of violation would be expunged. 

Any pending disciplinary actions against a business would be scrapped. 

HB 127 would prevent the state from taking any further disciplinary actions for violating any COVID-19 health orders through this October, so long as the business is otherwise in compliance with its standard licenses and permits. 

On Facebook, Merrin claimed that “many businesses” have been fined between $500 and $2,500 for their violations over the past year. The Ohio Capital Journal requested Merrin’s office provide any information or data detailing the enforcement of these orders and how many have faced fines or other penalties. 

Along with a litany of bills meant to target ODH’s pandemic authority, Republicans have tried before to alter the state’s health order penalties. 

Senate Bill 55 from the previous legislative term sought to lower the criminal penalties for violating public health orders. Lawmakers passed SB 55, but DeWine vetoed the legislation.

“In the midst of this pandemic, now is not the time to change tactics and impede local health officials’ ability to protect all Ohioans,” the governor wrote in a veto message. “Our collective goals are always to ensure the safety of the public, guard against the health care system from being overwhelmed, and allowing all Ohio workers and businesses to do what they do best, which is grow our economy.” 

Merrin’s bill awaits its first hearing in the House State and Local Government Committee.

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