COVID in Ohio: DeWine says restaurants, bars could close; businesses must enforce mask wearing
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine took action to curtail the exploding COVID-19 epidemic on Wednesday, threatening to close restaurants, bars and fitness centers, imposing a revised mask order that could briefly close businesses for violations and cracking down on post-event gatherings.
The governor said during a statewide address from the Statehouse that bars, restaurants and fitness centers could be ordered closed a week from Thursday "if the current trend continues and cases keep increasing."
DeWine did not specify what virus case level would trigger the closures as infections spiral to unprecedented levels and the rapid spread of the virus likely will continue to fuel cases for days to come. The governor's office could provide no more details on Wednesday night.
"I am very well aware of the burden this will place on employees and the owners. But, these are places where it is difficult or impossible to maintain mask-wearing, which we know now is the chief way of slowing this virus," he said.
In a late-night email to its members, the Ohio Restaurant Association said its members operate safely and are not behind the rise in virus cases.
"Any discussion of another restaurant closure is inconsistent with any science or contact tracing data that we have been provided, which continues to detail the greatest risk of transmission is occurring in private gatherings that are unregulated," the group said.
"Any mandate for further restrictions would be devastating to an industry that employs 585,000 Ohioans in 23,000+ locations, and troubling considering the extensive steps the industry has taken" to comply with state orders and restrictions, it said.
Restaurant owners have chafed at restrictions, complaining of sales dropping from 20% to 70% and leading to some closures. Restaurants.were limited to carryout and delivery service from March 15 to May 21, when indoor dining reopened with capacity restrictions.
DeWine also said retailers and other businesses will be held responsible, and potentially closed for 24 hours, if they allow employees to go without masks and permit customers to enter without face coverings.
A new unit of Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation agents will check compliance, with a first violation resulting in a warning and a second violation bringing an order for a business to close up to 24 hours. Businesses also must post mandatory mask-wearing signs at each public entrance.
The revised mask order will be issued by Thursday morning, the governor's office said.
DeWine also said a new public health order will be issued in a few days to place “significant restrictions” on banquets, wedding receptions and gatherings following funerals, which the state blames for "rampant spread of the virus."
“Specifically, open congregate areas can no longer be open. This requires everyone to be seated and masked unless they are actively consuming food or drinks and prohibits things, such as dancing and games,” he said.
DeWine warned that Ohio is at the most-crucial phase amid dramatically spiking cases.
"We are now seeing our third spike. But, this time, things are much different. We had been warned that when it got colder and drier and people were indoors more, the virus would rise up again. And it certainly has."
"This surge is much more intense, widespread, and dangerous. As of today, every single one of our 88 counties has a high rate of virus spread, and areas of our state that were previously untouched -- our rural areas -- are being hit especially hard," DeWine said.
DeWine said Ohio is on track to overwhelm hospitals with virus cases. "If nothing happens, this could happen in a few short weeks," he said, noting hospitals now are considered in a state of emergency. Absent a change, "Hospitals will again be forced to postpone important, but less urgent care," he said, recalling the temporary ban earlier this year on elective procedures.
He called on Ohioans to get back to the basics of wearing masks and practicing social distancing to avoid the need to switch schools and colleges to remote learning only.
DeWine called on Ohioans to not attend events, to cancel any they may plan to host and to continue to work from home.
"As we approach the upcoming Thanksgiving Day holiday, please remember that when someone you don’t live with enters your 'bubble,' it puts everyone you live with at risk. Even our family and our closest friends can bring COVID into our homes. They don’t do it intentionally, but it happens when they don’t know they have the virus, and we just need to avoid any unnecessary and additional risks right now," he said.
He closed: "My fellow Ohioans, few times in our lives will we ever be able to do something or refrain from doing something that will or can save a life. This is one of those rare times."
Here are the “alarming numbers” documenting the explosion of the virus which prompted DeWine’s new restrictions and enforcement:
Cases: The state recorded 5,874 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, the second-highest daily total of the pandemic. Ohio logged its highest-ever number – 6,508 – on Tuesday, obliterating Saturday’s record by nearly 1,000. Ohio raced past the 4,000-case mark to north of 6,000 in only a week.
Positivity: The positive rate on tests for the latest available day (Monday) jumped dramatically to 11.9% — the highest since late April when testing generally was restricted to suspected infections and the vulnerable. The seven-day average positivity rate rose to 10%, four times the figure in late September.
Hospitalizations: Admissions totaled 253 on Wednesday – down from Tuesday’s record number of 361 -- increasing the number of COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized to a record 2,880. A record 716 seriously ill patients were in intensive care units, with nearly half hooked up to ventilators to assist their breathing.
Deaths: A total of 76 deaths – more than three times higher than the three-week daily average -- were reported to health officials on Wednesday, boosting total pandemic fatalities to 5,623. Since deaths lag behind hikes in cases and hospitalizations, increasing numbers of deaths could accompany the latest surge.
Fifty-six of the 88 counties, containing 86% of Ohio's population, are classified "red" by state health officials, signifying significant spread of the virus. With a lower "orange" rating, Delaware is the only central Ohio county to escape the "red" designation.
Nonstop pleas for Ohioans to wear masks, embrace social distancing and avoid gatherings seemingly have stopped working due to "COVID fatigue" — people dropping their guard after the virus has stalked Ohio for eight nonstop months as cases have topped 267,000.
DeWine and public health experts have asked and asked and asked. And the virus numbers have gone up and up and up — setting up DeWine’s actions.
Most state public health orders since mid-year had reopened businesses and activities and loosened restrictions— with the exception of the July 23 statewide mask mandate and the July 31 order establishing the last call for alcohol in restaurants and bars at 10 p.m.