COLUMBUS — Now that state lawmakers have pushed a new Senate bill past Gov. Mike DeWine’s veto and hampered his executive power over the COVID-19 crisis, what happens next? And what does the Senate Bill 22 mean for the state’s pandemic response?
Senate Bill 22 limits a state of emergency issued by an Ohio governor to 90 days, unless extended by the General Assembly. Once that state of emergency has been in effect for at least 30 days, state lawmakers can end it — and it or a similar order can’t be re-issued for at least 60 days after that.
Ohio has been under a state of emergency since March 9, 2020.
SB 22 also creates a new Health Oversight and Advisory joint committee which signs off on any executive actions taken in a state of emergency, such as the public health powers exercised by former state health Director Dr. Amy Acton last March.
The committee will include three members from each chamber, two from their chambers’ majority parties and one from the minority, who’ll be appointed in the coming weeks.
The bill is designed to bring lawmakers into the decision-making process, supporters said. Ohio’s governor and health director would be required to confer with lawmakers on every action. It also puts a timer on Ohio’s COVID-19 state of emergency, which currently seems “never-ending,” said state Rep. Al Cutrona of Canfield, R-59th, who voted in favor of SB 22 and also voted to override the governor’s veto.
“This does not mean that the legislature is just gonna’ smack down every health order out there — that’s not what we’re in the business of doing,” Cutrona said. “At the end of the day, we cannot have one individual make sweeping decisions for the state as a whole, without any type of oversight.
“This is the ability to have a seat at the table for our [legislative] districts — so they can have a voice.”
That committee can also rescind any standing health orders from the governor or health director — such as the mask mandate or other restrictions on businesses and commercial venues — after passing a concurrent resolution by a simple majority vote in both chambers.
When will health orders change?
SB 22 doesn’t take effect for another 88 days — so, late June. Thirty days after that, the state of emergency can be terminated — or extended by the legislature — and lawmakers can begin the process of dismantling health orders themselves.
State Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan of Youngstown, D-58th, said she’s worried the process will begin immediately.
She noted many of her colleagues continue to refuse to wear masks inside the chamber. To keep with social distancing requirements, she and other lawmakers have resorted to listening to sessions from the hall outside the chamber, using a tablet to cast their votes.
She voted against SB 22 and the veto override.
“Because we have the power doesn’t mean we use it. It goes against logic,” Lepore-Hagan said, adding she feels the real issue is the state legislature’s Republican super-majority.
“You want checks and balances? … It shouldn’t be done in emergency situations. Emergency situations really need emergency responses," she said.
DeWine said during a Thursday briefing he hopes the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic will be over by the time the bill takes effect. He’s hoping for a “good summer.”
“We have the ability in the next 89 days to end this. We can drive this virus into the ground but it’s going to take all of us,” he told reporters Thursday. “Whatever people have thought about the health orders — we can have a common cause and that’s to get everyone vaccinated that wants to be vaccinated.”
The governor has promised to lift all health orders once only 50 new cases per 100,000 people have been reported over a two-week period. This week, that rate appears to have plateaued at 147 new cases.
Cutrona said the bill should “stand the test of time” and offer oversight and “checks and balances” for future general assemblies.
Can it be challenged?
SB 22 may still face constitutional challenges and there’s still plenty of time to prepare a lawsuit before it takes effect.
“I don’t think any member that voted for [SB 22] thought that it was unconstitutional,” Cutrona said. “That’s also why we have our checks and balances. If [courts] feel it is or it isn’t they can always take that up and make a decision on that.”
Though DeWine in his veto letter to state lawmakers last week said he feels parts of SB 22 violates articles on separation of powers and on the powers of the judiciary, he said Thursday he’s unsure whether his office will file a legal challenge. He’s ready to “move on.”
State Rep. Nino Vitale of Urbana, R-85th, a long-time critic of the state’s pandemic response, was one of three Republicans who voted against SB 22 when it came to the House, believing it was unconstitutional.
In a Facebook post earlier this month, he called SB 22 “smoke and mirrors” — something allowing “corrupt legislators to go back to their districts and say they reined in the governor.”
He abstained from Wednesday’s vote to override DeWine’s veto.
“The truth is that the General Assembly has done nothing for 12 months to change any laws, let alone pass a non-binding resolution. What makes you think they will do it now?” he wrote. “Any Ohio official who says SB 22 reins in the governor’s power is lying to you or again is ignorant of how Ohio law works. It does no such thing.”
What about future crises?
Speaking to reporters Thursday, DeWine said he’s not concerned how SB 22 affects his powers — rather those of the next governor who has to deal with a public health crisis.
“It may be a national crisis like this one. It may be something that impacts a community — someone comes in from an area and has Ebola and they come in and the local health department no longer has the ability to quarantine them,” he said.
He noted in his veto letter Ohio health officials are currently monitoring 44 people for symptoms of Ebola virus, after they returned from portions of Africa with active outbreaks.
Or the next crisis could be something as simple as a bacterial outbreak from “bad lettuce,” he said.
DeWine said he expects state lawmakers will revisit some of his issues with SB 22.
“I believe that we move on. It’s time for us to come together. We all want to see this virus gone,” he said. “The legislature said they’re going to fix parts of this bill and we certainly hope they do.”
Ohio isn’t the only state in which lawmakers have banded to rebuke COVID-19 health orders that have caused businesses to shutter — sometimes for good — and schools to close.
In just the first three months of 2021, state legislators in 44 states have put up a combined 275 bills on legislative oversight of executive authority relating to the pandemic, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Many of those bills pertain to executive powers and emergency declarations or require special legislative sessions. The vast majority were introduced by Republican lawmakers.
Most are currently pending in their respective chambers. Eight have been enacted, including Ohio’s SB 22. Six have been vetoed by governors. Of the four attempts to override those vetoes, three were successful.
SB 22 is the first of the four bills DeWine has vetoed since taking office in 2019 to be successfully overridden by the General Assembly.
House representatives cheered when the veto succeeded, said Lepore-Hagan. She called the movement to override DeWine’s veto an “emboldened power trip.”
“It’s not really a win for the people of the state of Ohio. We’re not protecting them,” she said. “I’m offended by it and I think it’s ridiculous that if my colleagues on the Republican side want to have the authority, they should just run for governor.
“If there’s a tornado, what — do we have to convene a committee to request federal funds? We’re putting ourselves up for some dangerous situations here.”
Cutrona said it’s the will of the people of Ohio.
“If you look at the numbers on the scoreboard, so to speak, there were 62 of the 99 [House representatives] that were very much in favor of the veto override,” he said. “We all vote the will of our districts. That showcases that it is very much something that’s for Ohio, that’s wanted and needed by the people.
“The decisions that were made on this were made for no personal reasons,” Cutrona continued. “This was something that is the will of the people and nothing personal.”
What about local health boards?
Under SB 22, local health boards will only be able to order Ohioans into quarantine or isolation after they’ve been medically diagnosed with a specified disease or come into contact with someone who has.
They also won’t be allowed to prohibit public gatherings, and only local school boards will be able to close their specific schools.
Mahoning County Health Commissioner Ryan Tekac said in a statement Thursday the agency is “profoundly disappointed” by state lawmakers’ successful veto override.
In limiting sweeping public health powers, they’ve also hamstrung local officials’ ability to handle small-scale emergencies that don’t have the political profile of the global COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“We believe SB 22 is a hazardous bill that will take away vital tools from state and local health officials not only to respond to a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic, but also to the numerous public health threats that we face on a yearly basis,” he wrote. “For example if a number of individuals are showing symptoms of disease such as measles or tuberculosis but test results are pending, then the lack of quarantine and isolation orders would allow time for other individuals to be exposed and fall ill to the disease.”
Under SB 22, orders issued by local health boards must pertain to specific individuals or businesses and can only be issued after individuals have been medically diagnosed, or after the disease has been documented inside the business.
In opposing testimony delivered last month to the House government oversight committee, local health officials cited recent examples of localized public health emergencies like outbreaks of Clostridium difficile — or “C diff” — at several long-term care facilities and a foodborne illness outbreak traced to a meat packaging plant that ships across the state.
“Orders such as these were never new to public health as they have been used sparingly as a vital means to quickly respond and mitigate further spread of diseases,” Tekac said Thursday. “We hope that sensible discussions will continue to take place in order to find legislative resolutions to the consequences of SB 22.”
Other local health officials said they aren’t yet sure how the new law will affect them in practice, especially since local departments mostly take cues from the state.
“We didn’t issue any local orders here,” said Laura Fauss, Columbiana County Health District spokesperson. “And we didn’t issue any required quarantine.”
Likewise, Mahoning County Public Health has not issued any localized health orders since the pandemic took hold.
At this point in the pandemic, the legislation won’t affect Trumbull County Combined Health District’s current focus, said Kris Wilster, the district’s environmental health director.
He said he’s working on vaccinating as many people as possible.
“If the legislature decides to lift all the mandates, I mean, I’m still in vaccination” — but at the end of the day, “we follow the leaders,” Wilster said.
“Things will change, and we’ll change with them.”
DeWine said Thursday the legislation is more likely to impact the state’s handling of future health crises rather than the current pandemic.
But removing the health department’s ability to quarantine people might not have much of a local impact, even in the future, Fauss said.
The district’s coronavirus self-quarantine guidelines are voluntary, and the community has generally been responsive, she confirmed.
“I can’t think of any time where we actually had to forcibly quarantine anybody,” Fauss said. “Our residents want to do what’s best for their communities.”
Mahoning Matters reporter Jess Hardin contributed to this report.
• The Ohio Department of Health COVID-19 dashboards are down, according to the ODH website. A note on the dashboard said: “The program that powers the state’s COVID-19 dashboards is currently experiencing downtime worldwide.” According to Tableau which is the platform having issues, ” ... engineers have identified the issue preventing users from viewing and interacting with Tableau Public ... and are taking steps to bring back the interaction with Tableau Public.”
• The mass vaccination site planned for the former Dillard’s store inside Southern Park Mall is set to open next week. The clinic is set to open Thursday, April 1, according to a release from Mahoning County Public Health. Gov. Mike DeWine had previously said the site was set to open Wednesday, March 31. Mahoning County Public Health is now scheduling appointments for anyone aged 18 and older.
• According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health on Thursday, there were 1,000,240 COVID-19 cases in the state which have led to 24,917 deaths. There have been 8.447 confirmed or suspected cases in Mercer County and 246 deaths; 6,471 cases in Lawrence County and 194 deaths. In Mercer County, 7,417 people have received the first of two vaccination doses and 21,662 have received both; in Lawrence County, 6,194 have received one dose; 12,189 have received both.
• Without COVID-19 vaccinations for Pennsylvania inmates and staff, further prison closures and inmate reduction programs – including any reprieves by Gov. Tom Wolf – won’t happen anytime soon, Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told the General Assembly this week. He told lawmakers four staff members and 104 inmates have died from the virus so far.
• Youngstown State University is partnering with the Youngstown City Health District to offer two coronavirus vaccination clinics for students, faculty, staff and family members on March 30 and April 6 at the Beeghly Center. Reservations are by appointment only and must be made online at ysu-covid.com.
• The City of Youngstown on Friday will host a memorial ceremony in remembrance of those lost to COVID-19 at 6:30 p.m. at Huntington Bank Community Alley at Wean Park downtown. City residents and those from surrounding communities are invited to celebrate the lives of those who have died as a result of the pandemic and those still battling its effects.