COLUMBUS — Gov. Mike DeWine announced Monday state investigators would begin cracking down on restaurants and bars that aren't meeting state reopening guidelines on social distancing.
Citing weekend reports of crowded bars and restaurants across the state during a Monday briefing on the state's coronavirus response, the governor said the state will begin surging additional investigators to the Ohio Investigative Unit to conduct "safety compliance checks" at those establishments.
Those investigators would be able to issue administrative citations which could cause establishments to lose their liquor licenses, the governor said. They'll also be working with local prosecutors "to take potential criminal action against these bad actors."
It was the first weekend Ohio restaurants and bars were allowed to re-open for open-air dining only after two months closed.
"It was clear that most restaurants were doing an amazingly good job; most bars were doing a good job, but it's clear that we have had some outliers — ones who just were not doing what they should do," DeWine said, calling for patrons and owners to take responsibility for the rules. "If we're going to make this [economic] recovery ... people have to feel safe when they go out. They have to feel the rules are being followed when they go out to a restaurant."
Social media over the weekend revealed crowded scenes with little or no social distancing at some bars across the state, especially in Cleveland and Columbus.
Photos: Crowd gathers at Standard Hall despite Ohio coronavirus restrictionshttps://t.co/FG9wPniJKg— Randy Ludlow (@RandyLudlow) May 16, 2020
DeWine said Columbus' local health department separately issued eight citations to city establishments over the weekend. Several other citations were issued in Medway, in Clark County, he added.
Though Columbiana County Health District followed up on the couple of complaints it received over the weekend, it didn't issue any citations, said spokesperson Laura Fauss.
"We have one person who is fielding these calls but have the availability of several inspectors from our department [to] help with complaint inspections if necessary," she said. "As of now, our office has not [issued] any violation orders and have continued gaining compliance through education."
Mahoning Matters did not receive responses from health officials in Mahoning or Trumbull counties, though Trumbull acknowledged the request.
The Ohio Investigative Unit largely enforces state liquor laws and its officers are commonly seen busting football tailgaters. DeWine said Monday the public safety group normally has about 70 people on-hand, but he couldn't say how many additional officers would be surged in. It's operated out of six districts across the state; the closest is in Akron.
DeWine later clarified individuals "absolutely" may also be cited by those investigators for ignoring distancing orders.
Indoor dining at Ohio restaurants and bars is expected to resume Thursday.
DeWine added the state is prepared to pull back on gradual reopening plans, if safety can't be controlled. He added local health departments also have the authority to issue more "prescriptive" orders in their jurisdictions.
"We certainly are willing to do it if we have to do it," he said. "It's also something locals can do as well."
Deaths concentrated in prisons
The COVID-19 death rate in Ohio's prisons is nearly 10 times higher than among the state's general population, according to data from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, released Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and Policy Matters Ohio.
As of May 13, a total 373 COVID-19 deaths were reported at state and federal prisons nationwide. Ohio's state prison inmates, however, account for 51 of those deaths, or nearly 14 percent. Of the nearly 89,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 as of Sunday, only 1,700 were Ohioans, or about 1.9 percent, according to a Monday release from ACLU of Ohio.
Ohio's prisons have the third-highest death rate per capita in the country, 105 deaths per 100,000 prisoners, behind Michigan (146) and New Jersey (232), according to The Marshall Project.
“Governor DeWine and Dr. Acton frequently remind us that Ohio is flattening the curve; however, one thing that isn’t flattening is the death rate in Ohio prisons," said Jocelyn Rosnick, ACLU of Ohio's policy director.
"Since the first death was reported in Ohio prisons, there hasn’t been a 48-hour period without an increase, and last week we saw the total jump by five within one day. As of today, 64 people have paid the ultimate price. We release these findings to remind DeWine that these deaths were preventable, and that more lives can be saved if broader categories of people are released to a safer environment."
The group has called for more transparency on testing inside prisons, inmate housing and quarantine measures and COVID-19 deaths, as well as for more medically vulnerable inmates to be released to lessen prison overcrowding.
About 2,100 inmates have been released since March 24, said ODRC Director Annette Chambers-Smith.
As of Monday, 61 ODRC inmates and three employees have died from COVID-19, she said.
There are no reported deaths at state prisons in the Mahoning Valley, and only five total cases, all at Trumbull Correctional Institution in Warren. Those inmates are in isolation, according to a Monday update from ODRC. One of them has recovered. One employee reported receiving a positive test.
Entire inmate populations at the Valley's three facilities have been quarantined. At Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, seven employees have reported positive tests; one of whom has since recovered. At Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, one employee reported a positive test and has since recovered.
Chambers-Smith, during the Monday briefing, said the state prison system may now elect to abandon mass testing once infections become widespread, and instead focus on inmate treatment. About 17 percent of state inmates have been tested, she said.
"A prison system is not a place — when it's open-bay living — where you can keep COVID out for any length of time. And it's not a place where it's not going to spread," she said.
Under ODRC's new testing plan, inmates are now tested upon intake, or when transferred out for or returning from surgery, Chambers-Smith said. ODRC's medical director may also opt to test inmates based on the physical layout of their facility or their age or health, rather than just symptoms of the disease.
Here are the data presented Monday by Dr. Amy Acton, Ohio Department of Health director, including 21-day trends of the virus' spread in Ohio and an illustration showing how the virus spreads from one person to multiple people:
Here are other recent developments around the state and nation:
• According to the latest figures Monday from the Ohio Department of Health, the state is reporting 26,646 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. There have been 1,231 confirmed cases in Mahoning County; 461 in Trumbull County; and 434 in Columbiana County.
• Statewide, there have been 1,504 confirmed deaths, including 148 in Mahoning County; 39 in Trumbull; and 43 in Columbiana. Mahoning County's 148 reported COVID-19 deaths on Monday was fourth-highest among Ohio's 88 counties; Lucas County had the most with 207.
• The City of Youngstown on Monday reported 270 total cases, including 52 hospitalizations and 21 deaths.
• The federal Bureau of Prisons on Monday reported 143 active cases of COVID-19 at Lisbon's Federal Correctional Institution Elkton, including 135 cases among inmates and eight cases among employees. Nine inmates have died, which is the highest number of deaths among federal prisons with confirmed cases, along with the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Tx. So far, 63 inmates and 44 employees at FCI Elkton have recovered from the virus, the bureau also reported.
• To help celebrate this spring's unusual graduations, LaFrance Cleaners is offering to press gowns for no charge at its Boardman and Youngstown stores. Gowns need to be taken to the stores by Wednesday so they will be ready for pickup on Thursday.
• Jake Kouwe, the accordion player for The Chardon Polka Band, came up with the idea for a virtual polka party and staged a concert for residents of the Park Vista assisted living facility on Fifth Avenue.
• White House Fruit Farm in Canfield, which reopened to walk-in shoppers May 7 with new safety procedures, is preparing for a very different spring season due to COVID-19. Though this year's Strawberry Festival has been canceled, strawberry picking will go on, albeit with new distancing guidelines.
• In nearby counties: Stark, 595 cases and 77 deaths; Portage, 296 cases and 53 deaths; and Ashtabula, 232 cases and 26 deaths.
• Berlin Lake and other select facilities at district-managed sites will open Memorial Day weekend for the 2020 recreation season in alignment with states’ guidelines, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District announced.
• Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said Monday planning is underway to allow high school athletes to begin training for upcoming school sports seasons, in coordination with the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
• According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health on Monday, there are 63,056 COVID-19 cases in the state which have led to 4,505 deaths. There are 72 cases in Lawrence County with 8 deaths; 94 cases in Mercer County with 4 deaths.
• Pennsylvania will lift some pandemic restrictions in a dozen more counties next week. Adams, Beaver, Carbon, Columbia, Cumberland, Juniata, Mifflin, Perry, Susquehanna, Wyoming, Wayne, and York counties will move to the yellow phase. That allows many businesses to reopen with social distancing in place.