The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
When it comes to the mask wars of the COVID-19 pandemic, the blame lies at the feet of those who choose to ignore sound health advice and reject masks, not the politicians whipping up the resistance, Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday.
In an interview, DeWine said there’s no use playing blame games on Republicans at the presidential, federal, and state level who have villainized masks despite scientific evidence of their efficacy against the new coronavirus.
A crowd, unmasked and in defiance of advisories against mass gatherings, filled an Ohio campaign rally for President Donald Trump in September and booed Lt. Gov. Jon Husted after he urged them to wear masks in grocery stores.
It’s the people in the crowd who make choices at the individual level who are at fault, DeWine said, not Trump and allies who host the gatherings and discourage mask wearing.
“It’s not a public health department failure, it’s a failure of the individuals to heed the public health warning and to follow the public health protocols,” he said. “That’s really what it is.”
The statement is indicative of the larger picture for DeWine, a Republican governor who has encouraged and mandated evidence-based public health strategies like masking and social distancing, but refrained from criticizing political allies who encourage the opposite.
On Tuesday, House lawmakers voted down a proposal from Democrats that would require members and staff to wear masks in the Statehouse. An ODH mandate compels Ohioans to do so in almost any other building in the state.
Last week, DeWine vetoed legislation that would allow lawmakers to vote down public health orders like the mask mandate and prohibit the governor from issuing stay-at-home orders as he and his counterparts across the nation did this Spring.
Legislative leaders have expressed intent to override the veto.
Over the last seven days, five House lawmakers have announced a COVID-19 diagnosis and several more are in quarantine seeking testing. And still, Republican members, many of whom express doubt about the gravity of the pandemic and refuse to wear masks, continue to hold in-person committee hearings this week.
DeWine declined to answer whether he would be willing to attend a committee hearing in person at the statehouse.
“Look, there’s 132 members of the General Assembly,” he said. “They each have opinions; they have a right to have opinions. I don’t think it should come as a surprise that during a once-in-100-years pandemic where we’re dealing with new issues and new challenges that are unprecedented, that there will be some disagreement among members. I don’t expect members to always agree with me.”
As the pandemic took shape this spring, Dr. Amy Acton, then director of the Ohio Department of Health, won both praise from national media and vitriolic blowback from activists. Protesters, some armed, singled her out in demonstrations at the Capitol stairs and her personal home alike. Some wielded anti-Semitic signs — Acton is Jewish.
Acton resigned in June and was set to be replaced by Dr. Joan Duwve, a Johns Hopkins University trained public health professional who served in Indiana under Dr. Jerome Adams and then-Gov. Mike Pence, now the U.S. Surgeon General and Vice President, respectively.
Hours after Duwve accepted the job and DeWine announced it to the public in September, she rescinded her acceptance. In a statement, she cited the “harassment” Acton’s family faced from the general public.
Now, Stephanie McCloud, an attorney with thin experience in public health, runs the department, though Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, a physician, serves as its lead voice on COVID-19 issues.
DeWine said demonstrators have protested Ohio’s COVID-19 response outside McCloud’s personal home.
“It’s part of the job now, apparently,” DeWine said. “We’ve seen this consistently. My comment to the demonstrators and everyone who doesn’t like what the current health director Stephanie McCloud is doing … the buck stops with me. I’m the elected official. They should focus their attention on me.”
Activists have taken to hosting dance parties rife with loud music outside DeWine’s Cedarville home to protest a 10 p.m. curfew imposed to slow the virus’ spread.
An ODH spokeswoman did not respond to questions about the alleged protest outside McCloud’s home.
There’s reason for optimism. The Food and Drug Administration is inching toward approval of a vaccine, the fastest a vaccine has ever been developed to thwart a disease and the first vaccination to provide immunity against a coronavirus.
That said, experts say the current case surge, hospital rush and snowballing death toll will continue until a vaccine is distributed at scale, which could take months.
That leaves public health officials with the same crude tools of quarantine, social distancing and masks to slow the viral spread, and the same split-messaging with the same politicians who use masks as punching bags until then.
DeWine has increasingly brought on nurses and physicians at his twice-weekly COVID-19 briefings to relay his message. ODH bought air time to run public service announcements calling on Ohioans to stay vigilant, and even brought Ohio State University football coaches in to add to the pro-mask chorus. And as DeWine noted, mask resistance is hardly unique to Ohio.
While he touted some encouraging signs of mass compliance and decreased Thanksgiving travel, DeWine acknowledged there’s a “significant number” of people who aren’t getting the message.
“Have we been totally successful in communication? No, we have not,” he said. “There are those who reject the science. There are those who reject what public health officials, and doctors and nurses are saying. That’s the situation that we find ourselves in. It’s not unique to Ohio.”