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Lawmakers pass bill restricting pandemic shutdowns

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Posted at 6:43 AM, Nov 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-17 06:43:05-05

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

State lawmakers passed legislation Tuesday that would block the governor from temporarily closing a business due to a pandemic or terrorism event so long as the business follows the safety precautions of still-operating businesses.

The proposal comes in response to lockdowns ordered by governors and health departments around the U.S. in March of 2020 as COVID-19 emerged into pandemic form.

Republican Reps. Jon Cross and Shane Wilkin pitched the bill as a correction to lockdowns that allowed big box retailers like Walmart to remain open as “essential businesses” while smaller retail locations with more niche selections were deemed “non-essential” and were required to close.

The bill allows the health department to shutter a specific business “due to circumstances uniquely present at that particular business.”

Republicans unanimously backed the bill. Senate Democrats all voted in support, though House Democrats split roughly down the middle on the vote.

Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Gov. Mike DeWine, said the governor supports the bill and acknowledges a “fair criticism” that the shutdown orders tended to favor large retailers over mom-and-pop shops. He said the governor (and a future governor) still have tools at their disposal to combat emerging pandemics with the legislation in place and denied that the proposal would bind the hands of any future administration.

“It’s difficult to see a scenario where the types of interventions we’re talking about are going to be put in place at that level,” he said.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 22, legislation significantly weakening the governor and health department’s ability to issue blanket lockdown orders in response to pandemics. It also gave lawmakers the ability to strike down health orders with simple majorities instead of a supermajority that was previously required. Republicans overrode DeWine’s veto of the legislation, which DeWine said “handcuffs Ohio’s ability to confront crises” amid the prospect of a “yet unknown epidemic illness bursting on the scene — just as COVID-19 did.”

Since then, DeWine has cited SB 22 as a roadblock to his desire to impose a statewide mask mandate for K-12 students, given the likelihood of legislators overturning it. He also signed legislation temporarily blocking schools from requiring COVID-19 vaccines or treating vaccinated students differently than unvaccinated students in terms of masks or social distancing.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents small business, supported the bill and said it fixes a problem of small businesses who were forced to close without being able to demonstrate their ability to operate safely.

“These predominantly small businesses were forced to close while other essential businesses could remain open selling similar or identical products and services to those shuttered businesses,” said NFIB spokesman Andy Patterson. “All businesses are essential, now the government can be out of the business of picking winners and losers.”