Coronavirus: Chief Justice advises releasing high health risk inmates; first possible Ohio death reported

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Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is encouraging judges to consider releasing jail inmates who are at high risk of health complications if they’re infected with coronavirus.

“I urge judges to use their discretion to release people held in jail and release incarcerated individuals who are in a high-risk category for being infected with the virus,” O’Connor said.

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Courts and sheriffs should conduct an assessment to determine if inmates can be safely released, she said.

She also is recommending that the courts take steps that would reduce the foot traffic in the buildings: use lower bonds or summons instead of arrests to minimize jail populations; avoid seating juries; refrain from issuing warrants for non-violent misdemeanors or traffic violations; and change probation and other community control to minimize face-to-face meetings.

O’Connor said Thursday that courts must remain open to address emergency and time-sensitive matters. She announced she’ll release $4 million for courts to purchase teleconference equipment and she recommended that evictions proceedings be suspended during the pandemic.

Gov. Mike DeWine used his daily coronavirus press briefing to announce an expansion of telehealth for Ohio Medicaid; note that the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio set a moratorium on electric and gas shut offs through May 1; and advise Ohioans to cancel their spring break plans and for those returning to stay home.

He promised an update Friday on whether daycare centers will be closed, though he noted that many parents heeded the call to pull their children from centers if possible.

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Lt. Gov. Jon Husted announced that Ohio received approval for businesses and nonprofits to apply for long-term, low-interest loans through the Small Business Administration’s disaster program.

The number of confirmed cases rose to 119 across 24 counties, according to state data. The (Toledo) Blade reported the first death presumed attributed to coronavirus happened in Lucas County.

Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton declined to specify how long Ohioans may have to stay home and practice social distancing to defeat the virus.

“We need to realize this is a long haul. But I think we need to take it as it comes because so much will evolve. If some of the drugs that we’re testing make a difference, that’ll be a new tool in our tool chest,” Acton said.

The governor said he will soon have a request list for lawmakers to consider, including granting him more emergency power. Other items DeWine mentioned in earlier press conferences include establishing a grace period for those driving with expired licenses because Bureau of Motor Vehicle offices are closed.

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Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said Thursday he is working with lawmakers to strengthen Ohio’s anti-price gouging law.

Legislators are scheduled to return to session next week and are expected to establish a new date for the Ohio primary election.

He addressed concerns about employers not taking people’s temperatures at work as he asked Wednesday. DeWine acknowledged that thermometers aren’t accessible to everyone and said his statement was more about urging employers to be careful with their workers.

He said rumors about a mandatory lockdown in Ohio and instituting martial law are not true.

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DeWine also said that the food supply chain is still moving, noting that people should not be concerned about grocery stores running out of food.

DeWine said an order is coming that will close illegal internet cafes. The governor said he received complaints from local officials saying that people are continuing to gather there.

Montgomery County Health Commissioner Jeff Cooper said during the Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County’s daily update that he is disturbed that his office also has received complaints that some establishments are not following the orders to only serve carry-out and delivery, with no food consumption inside or in the parking lot.

“Public Health is now issuing orders to comply to those establishments,” he said. “Please do not test our resolve on this issue. We are in the midst of a pandemic.”

Local courts are already following some of O’Connor’s recommendations.

Montgomery County Common Pleas Court judges issued orders that will limit or postpone jury trials for the next month. The public health emergency affects the courts’ functions, including the ability to impanel juries.

It’s not uncommon for potential jury pools to include upwards of 50 or 60 people who must sit in a room close to each other during jury selection. Selected jurors also sit closely.

The order does, however, give judges’ the option to hold trials on a case-by-case basis.

Judges with the Dayton Municipal Court and Dayton’s federal U.S. District Court have issued similar orders.

In municipal court, eviction cases have also been put on hold. Protection orders, violent crimes, OVIs and other major cases will be heard.

Staff writers Jen Balduf and Parker Perry contributed to this report.

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