Should state impose new mask mandate? New law, political landscape makes that unlikely

More schools are requiring masks and cities are again considering indoor mask mandates amid the latest COVID-19 surge, reigniting debate over whether Ohio should reinstate its statewide masking rules that were lifted in June.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley — who’s running to be the Democratic candidate for governor — also called on Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to enact a statewide school mask mandate, speaking at a news conference with Ohio parents earlier this week.

But a new Ohio law passed as Senate Bill 22 limits the DeWine administration’s ability to make such restrictions going forward.

The debates about masking and other public health measures comes as COVID-19 cases in many schools climb and quarantines force some closures.

Also, COVID-19 hospitalizations remain high in Ohio. A southern Ohio hospital in Portsmouth over the weekend said its ICU was at capacity and some Toledo-area hospitals had rerouted ambulances Monday because of capacity issues. Dayton Children’s Hospital said Wednesday there are only two beds available due to the high number of COVID-19 cases and other respiratory illnesses.

When hospitals have stretched resources, it is a safety issue for not just COVID-19 patients, but any emergency patient.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 3,494 Ohioans were hospitalized with COVID-19, which translates to 1 in 6 inpatients. Two months ago, 287 people were hospitalized with COVID-19.

Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County Health Commissioner Jeff Cooper recently urged local governments to consider mask mandates for public indoor spaces. The local health department does not have the ability to do such mandates under Senate Bill 22, but local governments can.

The Dayton City Commission will vote today on an ordinance requiring that face coverings be worn in indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

“No one likes wearing masks — myself included. But this is a necessary step to keep people in Dayton safe,” Whaley said in a statement. “The last thing any of us want is a return to shutdowns, and masks in public spaces is another way to prevent that.”

Aside from SB 22, the governor’s staff have also emphasized the importance of available vaccines and giving people good information to make decisions.

Dan Tierney, spokesman for DeWine, said people make the right decision when they get good information. Additionally, he said the majority of Ohio students are going to school with everyone wearing a mask, and that number has risen in recent weeks.

Children in schools without mask mandates can also still opt to wear a mask, and if they do so, they won’t have to quarantine if they are exposed.

“The most important thing here is keeping kids in the classroom,” Tierney said.

Whaley was asked at a recent campaign video conference whether it was worth it for DeWine to enact a mandate when the order could quickly be overturned by lawmakers. She said a mask mandate from the governor’s administration would demonstrate leadership and give support to school districts to take action.

She said maybe the legislature “will do the right thing” because of stories from their school districts. But if they did overturn a mask mandate from DeWine, she noted the governor has called Senate Bill 22 unconstitutional and he should take it to court.

“This is an example of DeWine continuing to get rolled by the extremists in his party,” Whaley said.

Whaley was speaking at a news conference on Monday with parents of children in Ohio schools including Lebanon and Little Miami districts. Veronica Strevel, of Lebanon, said her daughter had a meltdown the night that her daughter was told that school was going to be closing temporarily.

“She could not grasp why she couldn’t go to school, and she’s doing what she needs to do and she’s wearing a mask. And as a parent, I have no answers for her,” Strevel said. “I have no answers of why people can’t just wear a mask to stay at school.”

Lebanon now requires masks at school.

Lebanon City Schools is also joining a pilot program that includes a new multi-tiered, modified quarantine strategy that will use a testing protocol at school. The school district said the testing protocol will allow district officials to make decisions based on more objective data in order to keep healthy kids at school and sick kids at home.

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