COLUMBUS, Ohio — Whether it's a gym or grocery store, masks have been required to enter public, indoor places across the state since mid-July 2020. However, those mandates have not and continue to not be applied to the Statehouse, the state’s most public building. That fact was on full display on Wednesday after a state senator left a committee hearing after seeing a crowd of mask-less people in the gallery.
State Sen. Cecil Thomas (D-Cincinnati) left the Ohio Senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Wednesday near the beginning of public testimony for Senate Bill 22, which would curtail Gov. Mike DeWine’s authority to issue public health orders, including mask mandates. State Sen. Thomas said he was leaving the hearing out of concern for his daughter who has a compromised immune system. More than two dozen people in the gallery were not wearing masks and were not practicing social distancing.
“I have a daughter that has a serious compromised immune system and the last thing I want to do is bring the virus home to her,” State Sen. Thomas said. “I really respect everybody here but no one is wearing a mask and the data clearly speaks to how the virus spreads. I’m going to exit and I’m going to my office and I’ll watch it from my office.”
The Ohio Statehouse, which is operated by the Ohio Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, is exempt from the governor’s public health orders. Despite repeated attempts and public overtures to require masks at the Statehouse, lawmakers have refused to enact any mandates.
“All Ohio Statehouse visitors should comply with Governor DeWine’s directives regarding masks,” said Mike Rupert, the spokesperson for the Ohio Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board. “The Ohio General Assembly is responsible for governing themselves and for establishing protocols for areas of the Statehouse under their jurisdiction.“
For more than two hours, a succession of speakers ranted and railed against Gov. DeWine’s public health orders, the impact on the economy and education, in addition to their every day lives. A few of the speakers told the committee about how the pandemic and Gov. DeWine's public health orders have decimated their small businesses. Concerns were also raised about some of the pandemic's side effects, citing opioid abuse, domestic violence reports and the impact on education.
Among those that spoke in support of SB 22 were prominent anti-vaccination groups as well as those who regurgitated frequently disproven statements about masks and the coronavirus.
Scenes like those that played out on Wednesday continue to be a source of frustration for front-line medical workers, including Dr. Amy Edwards, a physician in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University Hospitals.
“I’m so far past frustration, I can’t even tell you. I do get frustrated. I have people on my personal Facebook feed that still don’t believe the science,” Edwards said. “Studies have been done that look at countries or regions of the world where mask compliance is very high at 80 percent or higher. You can see reduced transmission in those areas. You can look in areas where mask compliance is lower, less than 80 percent, and you can see increased transmission. We know [masks] work on both a population level and an individual level.”
Among those that spoke in favor of SB 22 was Stephanie Stock, the president of the prominent anti-vaccination organization, Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom.
Despite Gov. DeWine previously making clear that he would not mandate that people receive the vaccine, Stock lambasted potential vaccination requirements in the future. Other speakers questioned the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine and vaccines in general, despite ample evidence that vaccines are safe and the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. While a majority of those that receive the vaccine will experience some discomfort or minor adverse effects like headaches, data has repeatedly shown that severe adverse effects like allergic reactions are extremely rare.
The overwhelming majority of the claims during SB 22 testimony that contained misinformation or falsehoods went unchallenged. The fact that masks are still not required at the Statehouse also doesn’t surprise Edwards, she said.
“The lawmakers in Ohio haven’t overwhelmed me with their enthusiastic support of science during this pandemic,” Edwards said. "If you would trust me to take care of your child in the hospital or bring your child to my clinic, I don’t understand why you don’t trust me [when it comes to the coronavirus] because it’s all science. I’m using science and my brain in both cases.”
Officials said Ohio Senate staff has been instructed to remove a number of chairs from the committee rooms in order to further limit the number of people that can be seated in the gallery.