Coronavirus: Next 100 days: ‘We’re going to have to live with this’

When Gov. Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency 100 days ago in early March, Ohio didn’t have a single confirmed case of COVID-19, the economy was strong and unemployment was low.

The coronavirus global pandemic changed all of that — and more changes are one of the few consensus answers for what the next 100 days will bring.

DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton took unprecedented action to slow the virus spread and prevent the health care system from being overrun.

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They closed K-12 schools, banned mass gatherings, shuttered bars and restaurants and told Ohioans to stay home for all but essential needs. They shut down polling places during the presidential primary. They asked churches to hold services online and made colleges send students home.

Now the coronavirus pandemic is a dual crisis: health and the economy. More than 1.3 million Ohioans are out of work; businesses are struggling to reopen; people are worried about evictions and foreclosures; more than 40,000 total people have been infected; and nearly 2,500 total Ohioans have died.

The changes to society — indelible or transient — are on display. Ohioans are wearing masks in public places. Stores mark off six-foot distances to remind people to stay apart. Handshakes and fist bumps are rare among strangers. Working from home is now more common.

Complicating the coronavirus pandemic are mass protests against racism and police brutality after the killing of George Floyd, said Amy Fairchild, dean of the Ohio State University College of Public Health.

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“We are entering such a period of uncertainty,” she said. “We are in a context in which we’ve got outdoor mass gatherings happening and uncertainty over what this is going to mean for potential spikes in the epidemic … It is vital at this moment in time to think very carefully about what our comfort levels are with viral risks and our sense of urgency in taking very active steps to demonstrate not only our commitment to combating racism and ending police brutality but to engaging as citizens at a time when it’s never been more important to think about, not just public health, but civic health.”

The radical changes over just 100 days begs the question: What will the next 100 days bring?

Uncertainty is for the workplace, schools, campaign trail, economy and government is one of the few certain things.

“My crystal ball is pretty cloudy. The one thing that we’ve learned about this virus is that we keep learning things about it,” DeWine said in an interview with the Dayton Daily News. “People are learning. We’ll all continue to learn over the next 100 days about how to live with this virus. People will make adjustments and decisions. What’s going to settle in with all of us is we’re going to have to live with this.”

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said she is worried that people will become less disciplined with social distancing and other measures to fight the virus.

“It’s really up to how well people behave through this summer,” she said. “And I’m worried about that because we’re already seeing the uptick starting to happen and we see people getting more and more comfortable moving around.”

Economy: Ohio's 126 months of economic expansion halted during the pandemic. The DeWine administration began a gradual, phased-in reopening of the Ohio economy in May. Businesses face new rules requiring social distancing, sanitation and employee masks. But it's unclear how long it'll take to regain customer confidence.

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Public Opinion Strategies found in May that less than half of Americans are willing to re-engage in activities such as staying in a hotel, flying on an airplane, eating at a restaurant or going to a gym.

This spring, housing sales, manufacturing, labor participation and consumer spending all fell. Nearly half of American households report a loss of job income since March 13 and one in four Americans missed last month’s rent or mortgage or have little to no confidence they can pay next month on time.

Ohio’s unemployment rate for May stood at 13.3%, down from 14.7% in April. Over the past 12 weeks, 1.33 million Ohioans have filed for jobless benefits — more than the combined total of claims filed over the past three years.

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Government: State and local governments are bracing for steep budget cuts. After the shutdown orders, sales and income tax revenues began to fall off sharply. DeWine ordered more than $700 million in spending cuts to balance the current fiscal year budget, which ends June 30. His administration estimates another $2.5 billion will have to be cut from the next fiscal year operating budget, which begins July 1. Nonunion employees will see a 3.8% pay cut; lawmakers are being asked to approve a pay freeze for exempt workers; unions are being asked to discuss ways to cut bargaining unit personnel costs.

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At the local level, cities are outlining millions of dollars in spending cuts, job losses and furloughs as income tax revenues take a tumble.

Whaley, founding member of the Ohio Mayors Alliance, said local governments will have to make deep cuts in their budgets if the federal government doesn’t provide a bailout. When unemployment benefits are exhausted and the paycheck protection program ends mid-summer, tax revenues may drop further, she said.

“That’s when you’ll really see the hit,” Whaley said.

DeWine said “What would be devastating is if you have a second wave that comes through in the winter … if you have a significant spike or you have an area that has a heavy outbreak, none of that is good for the economy.”

MORE:  How Dayton region small businesses adapted to survive

Politics: The pandemic led to the abrupt and historic move to close polling places for Ohio's March 17 primary and move to an all mail-in election in April. Now voting rights groups and elected officeholders are arguing over what steps should be taken to make sure voters can cast ballots in the General Election in the event there is a wave of new cases and shutdowns.

The traditional national political conventions could look vastly different than in the past. Already, the presidential campaigns have been subdued and nearly void of public events, high-end fundraisers, rallies and rope lines.

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“You’re certainly going to see the candidates out. It’s hard to envision a modern presidential campaign without candidates being out and seen. I don’t know if you’ll see a big rally or not,” DeWine said, noting that gatherings protected by the First Amendment, including religious ceremonies, protests and political events, have been exempted from the ban against mass gatherings.

On top of the impact on the presidential campaign, the virus itself has become a political wedge.

Harvard-Harris National Survey found 64% of President Donald Trump voter believe the rate of coronavirus infections in the U.S. is slowing down but 65% of Hillary Clinton voters think it’s speeding up.

Axios/Ipsos National Survey found 63% of Democrats believe the death toll from the coronavirus is higher than reported while 40% of Republicans believe the toll is lower than reported.

University of Dayton political scientist Christopher Devine said research shows that Americans take subtle cues on social media to draw inferences about someone’s political views. An individual’s response to the virus — such as wearing a mask or not — is another example of that.

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“A lot of these things we’d hope in a more unified country would be consensus decisions and broader behaviors. Instead, they’ve broken along political lines in ways that I think are just going to increase division, rather than unify us,” Devine said.

Devine also said he wonders whether DeWine’s extraordinarily high job approval ratings will be sustained over the next 100 days as the governor’s leadership on the pandemic and racial justice protests is tested.

“It’s hard to believe that level of popularity can last,” he said.

Schools: DeWine said he fully intends to have Ohio's 1.8 million K-12 students back in the classrooms this fall but he hedged, noting that it's still unclear if the coronavirus spread will be held in check.

One-hundred days from now, Ohio will have a better idea of how schools are handling the coronavirus pandemic, DeWine said.

“We’re going to see how that is working at the college level and in K through 12,” he said.

Public Opinion Strategies found in May that just 31% of Americans are willing to send their child to school.

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He also said that public and private colleges and universities plan to reopen in the fall but will have contingency plans if changes are needed. Already, Miami University and Ohio State University announced they’ll return to in-person classes in the fall.

Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro, who has been a teacher for 29 years, said everyone is wondering how and when students will return to the K-12 classrooms and what it’ll look like.

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“Nobody knows for sure because we don’t know what will happen with the virus. The smart strategy is to plan for multiple scenarios,” he said. Districts might employ a combination of in-person and online learning, depending on what’s happening with COVID-19 cases, he said. Ohio shouldn’t use a one-size-fits-all approach because its 600 school districts vary, he said.

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DiMauro said the coronavirus has laid bare existing equity issues in the education system — gaps that might widen as the crisis continues.

“You see how critical schools are in providing supports to families and communities and the difference between high poverty communities and what happens when schools don’t have the resources that they need or students just don’t have the support that they need,” he said. “Those are some serious issues and I hope that this crisis is creating a new found sense of urgency.”

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