Ohio Retailers Must Enforce Masks or Risk Closure; Restaurants, Bars, Gyms Could Close

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the wake of the third wave of coronavirus in the state, resulting in record-setting cases of COVID-19, Gov. Mike DeWine issued new requirements and a clear warning to businesses during a special address Wednesday evening.

Amendments to the July 23 mask order for businesses bring the first threat of penalty for businesses, particularly retailers, that aren’t compliant. The reissued order now requires businesses to post a face-cover requirement sign at all public entrances.

It also puts the onus on those businesses for ensuring compliance among customers and employees, and creates a retail compliance unit composed of agents from the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation who will inspect stores for compliance, the governor said.

The first violation of the order comes with a written warning. The second violation results in closure of the business for up to 24 hours.

If the spike in cases and hospitalizations continues as it has been, the state will be forced to close restaurants, bars and fitness centers, he added.

“We will look at this one week from tomorrow,” he said. “I’m very well aware of the burden this will place on employees. I’m well aware of the burden this places on the owners.” But these are places where it’s difficult or impossible to maintain mask wearing, “which we know now is the chief way of slowing this virus,” he said.

“We must do this to protect our frontline workers.”

The announcement followed the Ohio Department of Health reporting Wednesday another 5,874 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s total of 267,356. Before Wednesday, the state set two consecutive days of record cases with 5,549 reported Sunday and 6,933 reported Monday.

That compares to September, when the state was averaging just under 1,000 new cases daily, DeWine noted. Hospitals have also seen more patients with COVID-19, with hospitalizations increasing to nearly 3,000 in the state this week, up from about 1,100 at most during the spring and summer, he said.

With higher case counts comes increases in hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and deaths, the governor said. Today, each of Ohio’s 88 counties has a high rate of virus spread, with rural areas being “hit especially hard,” he said. As the weather gets colder and more people are indoors, the numbers will continue to rise, he said.

“This surge is much more intense, widespread and dangerous,” DeWine said.

These increases threaten to overwhelm hospitals and health care providers, DeWine said. “If nothing changes, this all could happen in just a few short weeks.”

During a press conference Nov. 9, health care leaders made it clear that Ohioans need to take safety measures now to slow the spread of the virus, otherwise the surging numbers, along with the seasonal flu, will overwhelm the state’s health-care system. That could result in non-COVID services again being postponed.

“If you start to model it and increase the doubling time to six weeks, we’re only seeing 300 patients in our facilities, a number we can certainly accommodate. It’s unfortunate, but it’s something we can manage,” said Dr. Richard Lofgren, president and CEO of UC Health, the University of Cincinnati’s health system. “If we continue to accelerate, to 14 days from 21 days, we’d see more than 1,400 patients. It’s at that point you start to exhaust resources, most notably staff. It’d result in us having to think about deferring non-COVID care.”

The trends in COVID cases are also taking a toll on health care workers, the governor said. In the spring, the focus was on having enough personal protective equipment and other equipment for health care providers. “Today, the question is whether or not we have enough people,” he said.

“Our health care workers are, quite frankly, exhausted. They’ve been running a marathon for nine straight months,” he said. And with the recent spikes in cases and the onset of flu season, “It’s like they’re starting all over again.”

DeWine confirmed that Ohio is still in a state of emergency, which allows hospitals to make staffing adjustments according to guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Such adjustments include reassigning workers from other settings, such as physician offices, according to health care leaders.

“It’s not limitations of safety supplies or physical beds, but because we’re exhausting the available supply of trained personnel,” ODH chief medical officer Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said Monday. “These nurses, physicians, pharmacists and other health-care providers live in our communities. They can’t escape the impact of rising COVID numbers in their communities. When they have to quarantine, they can’t be bedside.”

Doctors indicated that much of the spread is happening during social functions, such as banquets, parties, wedding receptions and funerals.

“We have seen great tragedy associated with some of these events,” DeWine said Wednesday.

As such, DeWine said that in the next few days, he will issue a new order that places “significant new restrictions on these social activities,” including prohibiting open congregate areas from being open, requiring anyone attending such an event to remain seated and masked unless eating, and prohibiting certain activities such as dancing and games.

DeWine again urged Ohioans to take precautionary measures, such as wearing masks, distancing, postponing gatherings, maintaining good personal hygiene and trying to circulate as much fresh air inside as possible. With the holidays approaching, he reminded viewers “when someone you don’t live with enters your bubble, it puts everyone you live with at risk.

Also on Monday, the nation received “promising news” from Pfizer that its vaccine may be 90% effective at preventing COVID-19, and that the company is on track later this month to file an emergency use application with U.S. regulators, the Associated Press reported.

While that announcement doesn’t mean a vaccine is imminent, it “should give us all great hope,” the governor said.

“It could be here as early as December,” he said. “And we will be ready to get it out just as soon as we receive it.”

The state would likely receive the first doses in batches to be distributed to the most vulnerable populations, as well as essential health workers, he said. From that point, distribution will move to the general population.

Until then, the governor reiterated the importance of getting back to basics to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“I know you’re tired. I know you’re weary. I know you want this to be over,” he said. “But in words often attributed to Winston Churchill during one of the most dangerous and darkest times of World War II, ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going.’ And so tonight, I ask you, keep going.”

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.