Health Agencies See Mask Order as Way to Educate

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The responsibility of fielding complaints of businesses and individuals violating the statewide facemask order falls to local health departments, but officials say they view this as an opportunity to educate rather than punish.

Gov. Mike DeWine’s statewide facemask order took effect 6 p.m. Thursday. Since then, health departments in Mahoning, Columbiana and Trumbull counties have been working to develop response plans for complaints.

On Friday, the Mahoning County Public Health agency established a dedicated hotline for businesses that are violating the statewide order. Residents can dial the 24/7 hotline at 330 270 2858 and leave the name and address of the Mahoning County business, as well as the details of the violation.

The initial complaint will warrant an investigation by the agency, says county Health Commissioner Ryan Tekac. Should the agency receive further complaints about the same business, it will work with local law enforcement to issue a citation if warranted. But Tekac says that’s not the goal of the order.

“We’re not trying to be punitive on this. We’re trying to educate on the importance of it,” Tekac says. “We’re here to work with you. We want the businesses working with the community and the community working with the businesses.”

Agency members will work with businesses to help get them into compliance and explain the benefits of wearing masks and encouraging customers to wear masks to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the disease spread by the coronavirus.

Tekac cites recent case studies released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, particularly one published July 17 about a hair salon in Springfield, Mo. According to the study, the salon has a universal face covering policy for stylists and customers.

In May, two symptomatic hair stylists with confirmed COVID-19 worked directly with customers for eight days straight. In that time, they served 139 customers, of whom 104 were interviewed by the Greene County Health Department and 67 volunteered to a nasopharyngeal swab test – the other 72 refused the test. All 67 tests came back negative, according to the study. Both stylists were abiding by the salon’s face covering policy.

“We’re asking anyone who is entering a building, if you can put a mask on, please wear it,” Tekac says. “Because you’re protecting those workers. You’re protecting the customers who are in there.”

The agency’s hotline is for Mahoning County businesses only and not for individuals. For businesses operating in the city of Youngstown, residents need to call the Youngstown City Health District at 330 743 3333.

This past week, the city’s health district conducted outreach efforts to businesses operating within city limits, educating business owners about the efficacy of facemasks and delivering masks to business owners so they can distribute them to customers who don’t have any, says Tara Cioffi, environmental health director for Youngstown.

“We’ve been successful in talking with people and working through it,” she says. “Everybody seems to be cooperative at this point.”

Like Mahoning County, the city’s district will not issue citations on the first offense, Cioffi says. However, if there are additional, ongoing complaints about a business, “we will revisit that with a potential violation where the law department can follow up with a proper fine,” she says.

In an emailed response to an inquiry, Laura Fauss, public information officer for the Columbiana County Health District, said the agency is working on a plan for handling the new mask order. Currently, the agency is taking mask-related complaints in the same way it’s taken other COVID-19-related complaints, by phone, email or fax. The agency’s general phone number is 330 424 0272.

“We have not issued any additional citations for businesses or individuals to date and have been focusing on education by our enforcement team,” Fauss said in an email.

Facemasks have been a contentious issue in the state and throughout the country. Until announcing the statewide order July 22, Gov. DeWine has continued to encourage wearing facemasks in public, even holding a rare evening briefing July 15 to promote the message but stopping short of issuing a mandate.

On July 18, hundreds of anti-mask protesters gathered at the statehouse in Columbus to protest what they see as government overreach, reported The Cincinnati Enquirer. Protesters decried doctors urging them to wear masks and said the infection and mortality data are manipulated, the Enquirer reported.

The official order from the state doesn’t specify penalties for violating the mandate. However, violations of past mask orders have been treated as a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a maximum $750 fine under Ohio law.

Health departments recognize special consideration must be given for employees who are unable to wear masks per the exemptions outlined in the order, says Mahoning County’s Tekac. Such considerations are likely already documented or will be documented during any investigation conducted by the health department, he says.

Tekac advises customers to understand that some employees might be exempt from wearing a mask because of those considerations, and he asks them to be respectful to anyone seen not wearing a mask.

“It’s not a time for hatred or shaming people whether you’re wearing a mask or not,” he says.

Pictured: Anti-mask protesters, from left, Jeanine Mardis, Robert Dickman, of Sandusky, and Cherrelyn Pierson, of Marysville, listen to speeches at the Ohio Statehouse, Saturday, July 18, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. The rally, called “Stand Up For America,” attracted people and groups opposed to wearing masks and those protesting government control. (Eric Albrecht/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)

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