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Anti-mask, anti-vax Ohioans support bill targeting health dept. authority

Masks not worn at hearing; lawmaker walks out
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Posted at 8:04 PM, Feb 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-04 10:19:08-05

COLUMBUS — The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.

Maskless and frustrated, a string of Ohioans offered tales Wednesday of their personal aggrievement since the coronavirus pandemic began.

A woman told of her favorite gluten-free bake shop closing down in 2020, thus denying her access to “cheesy bread with the best freshly made marinara sauce I’ve ever tasted." She also claimed her cat died after being refused treatment during the initial stay-at-home order.

A seventh-grade student from Warren County complained about having to speak loudly during his school’s socially-distanced lunches. He described being annoyed by the overuse of hand sanitizer in school, which dampens his paperwork and makes dodgeballs tougher to grip during gym class.

A Cleveland native spoke about his past joy of watching bands perform at a local bar from his apartment window, only to see the performances stop when the mayor issued a local mask mandate. (The man’s written testimony also blames Gov. Mike DeWine for ending his marriage.)

When Republican Sens. Rob McColley of Napoleon and Terry Johnson of McDermott first introduced Senate Bill 22 last week with a goal of allowing lawmakers to strike down state health orders, they offered a clear message: This was not legislation designed to target Gov. Mike DeWine and the state health department. McColley and Johnson said the bill is about the broader need for legislative oversight and the importance of checks and balances in government.

Yet the bill’s first hearing to feature public testimony struck a much different tone on Wednesday. One by one, supporters of SB 22 offered pointed criticism of the governor and the Ohio Department of Health. They downplayed the deadliness of the virus and shared a string of falsehoods about its impacts.

Almost none of those that crowded into the hearing room wore masks, nor did several of their Republican allies on the committee.

Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, left the hearing and said he felt safer watching it in his office.

“My daughter has a severely compromised immune system and I won’t sit there and put her health at risk,” he later tweeted.

Face masks are not required at the Ohio Statehouse for either lawmakers or visitors. Democrats have repeatedly called for a mask mandate, or for the legislature to conduct business through digital means. Republicans in the majority have rejected these proposals, including on Wednesday during an Ohio House session.

The hearing, ostensibly to consider a bill regarding executive and legislative authority, provided an open platform for anti-vaccine and anti-mask sentiments.

Among those who testified was Stephanie Stock, president of Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom, a prominent anti-vaccine group. Stock took the opportunity to preemptively speak out against any future theoretical requirements that Ohioans be vaccinated to participate in society.

"(O)nce these new social constructs and technologies are in place, we will be a signature away from an unchecked Governor mandating vaccines for all,” she argued.

In fact, Ohioans are not required to get the COVID-19 vaccine and DeWine has made clear he would not mandate getting vaccinated. The bulk of the unfounded claims made on Wednesday went unchallenged.

Interspersed were stories of frustration with pandemic life, including complaints about getting berated for not wearing a mask. One small business owner said his daily errands have become “tedious and exhausting” due to facing condemnation from store owners and fellow shoppers.

Bill may or may not impact COVID-19 response, leader says

Senate Bill 22 is the latest effort by Ohio Republicans to target the authority of the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) to respond to the pandemic.

If enacted into law, SB 22 would create a new legislative committee with the power to strike down health department orders by a majority vote.

The entire chamber would also have the ability to rescind executive orders or an emergency declaration issued by the governor.

The bill would limit the executive branch in other ways, such as limiting an emergency declaration to 30 days unless the legislature extends it.

Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, told reporters following Wednesday’s committee hearing that the proposed legislation is in response to nine months of “chaos” and “miscommunication.” He too described a need for the Ohio General Assembly to be more involved in the state’s handling of an ongoing crisis such as COVID-19.

Asked about the timeline of SB 22 — whether the goal would be to enact it in time to influence the current pandemic response — Huffman said he wasn’t yet sure.

It will depend, he noted, on how quickly the bill moves through the legislature over the coming months versus how long it takes for Ohio to get the pandemic under control.

Huffman also said the Ohio Senate would enforce stricter guidelines on the number of people allowed in a committee hearing room going forward.