The DeWine administration took extraordinary action late Monday to halt in-person voting for the March 17 primary by issuing a public health order shutting down more than 3,600 polling locations.
Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton was to sign an order late Monday after a Franklin County judge denied a request by two voters to delay the election to June 2 but continue absentee voting by mail.
Gov. Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Frank LaRose announced Monday afternoon that they believed the evolving, dangerous coronavirus outbreak would put voters and poll workers over 65 and those with health issues at risk of being exposed to the virus.
DeWine said it presented an unacceptable health risk.
“While the polls will be closed tomorrow, Secretary of State Frank LaRose will seek a remedy through the courts to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity,” DeWine said in a written statement.
It capped off a day of whip-saw news on how Ohio’s primary election should be handled.
First, LaRose ordered county boards of elections to offer curbside voting and extend absentee ballot requests. Then, later in the day, LaRose and DeWine recommended that the election be delayed until June 2. Late Monday afternoon, the voters filed the lawsuit seeking to put that recommendation in place. But Judge Richard Frye denied the request for an injunction.
Poll workers received conflicting reports about whether the election was on or off.
LaRose and DeWine fired off a statement, saying “logistically, under these extraordinary circumstances, it simply isn’t possible to hold an election tomorrow that will be considered legitimate by Ohioans.”
After 10 p.m. it was announced that Dr. Acton would be issuing the public health order.
DeWine and LaRose said they recommended postponing the election based on a new recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that no more than 50 people gather at a time and concern for voters who would be forced to choose between their constitutional rights and risking their health.
In a statement, the Secretary of State’s Office added that it didn’t have the authority to move the election day. Officially shifting election day would come as a result of a legal order or an act of the state legislature.
“We commend the governor and secretary of state for balancing the health and safety of all Ohioans while ensuring that every voter can participate in the primary,” League of Women Voters of Ohio Director Jen Miller said before the court ruling. The Ohio Association of Election Officials also issued a statement supporting the proposed delay of the election and extension of absentee voting.
Some 35,000 poll workers — many of whom are senior citizens — usually work 13 hours or more on Election Day and are exposed to thousands of voters, some of whom may be carrying coronavirus.
Also on Monday, Acton was expected to sign an order banning gatherings of 50 or more people to comply with updated CDC guidelines and close down recreation centers, movie theaters, indoor water parks, bowling alleys and gyms as of Monday.
“We hope that Ohioans will follow this advice. Just as any other law or rule, you can’t enforce it all the time,” DeWine said. “We don’t have any experience with this. It’s a once in 100 years crisis. And so we have to come together … we have to treat this like any huge, huge national crisis.”
Montgomery County Sheriff Rob Streck said they have not had any compliance issues with the governor’s orders that they have had to respond to and calls for service are actually down.
While most people step up in emergencies, Streck warned to look out for scams just like after the tornadoes.
The Ohio Department of Health reported Monday the number of confirmed cases rose to 50 and it stopped reporting how many test results are pending. Ages range from 14 to 86 and include 20 females and 30 males. Fourteen patients in Ohio are hospitalized.
Acton said Ohio is asking the food and beverage industry to turn in their latex gloves to the local Emergency Management Agency to be redirected to be used by front line health care workers responding to the outbreak. Likewise, dentists, veterinarians and other health care providers are asked to turn in extra personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks and delay elective surgeries and procedures.
“We know there won’t be enough,” Acton said of protective equipment for front line responders.
She added that Ohio is now on the up slope of the pandemic curve — a rapid growth of infections throughout the community. Steps taken to keep people from interacting and infecting one another are designed to flatten that curve.
Testing for the virus will be increased and include “drive-through” centers at hospitals to keep those with COVID-19 symptoms out of emergency rooms where they could infect others. Testing is only available with a doctor’s order and those who are at high risk of complications — the elderly and those with chronic health conditions — will take priority.
Earlier, the DeWine administration banned gatherings of more than 100, closed K-12 schools for at least three weeks and shut down dine-in service in bars and restaurants. On top of that, colleges have gone to online learning and shut down dormitories. Visits to prisons, youth detention centers, jails, psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes have been suspended.
Ohio has led the nation on many of these mandates, demonstrating aggressive steps to slow the spread of the virus so that the health care system doesn’t get overwhelmed.
Lt. Gov. Jon Husted urged employers to send sick workers home and use expanded, more flexible unemployment benefits that will allow employees to claim jobless benefits immediately if they’re affected by the coronavirus crisis.
“Do not keep a sick person at work,” he said.
Husted said a week ago, Ohio had 562 unemployment benefit applications on a Sunday; two days ago, there were 12,000 applications filed.
The wait time for the unemployment benefits hotline, 877-644-6562, is more than 90 minutes, so those who have internet access are urged to apply online.
Husted also urged employers to put workers into online training and credentialing programs to brush up their skills so they’re ready to return to work when the economy rebounds.
Husted and DeWine also assured Ohioans that grocery stores, pharmacies and banks would remain open and restaurants would continue to offer carryout and delivery.
A dozen counties have reported cases — Belmont, Butler, Cuyahoga, Franklin, Geauga, Lorain, Lucas, Medina, Stark, Summit, Trumbull and Tuscarawas.
Butler County, the only county in southwest Ohio with confirmed cases, is at six people with the virus.
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