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Mask order a challenge to enforce as complaints pour into Valley health departments

Alleged mask violations have prompted at least 123 complaints to Valley county health departments since Ohio's mask order took effect.

YOUNGSTOWN —  As of about a week ago, Ohioans are required to wear masks in public where social distancing is not possible, but you wouldn’t know it by walking around places like the Rogers Flea Market. 

Hundreds of visitors meandered through the outdoor market on Friday afternoon. It appeared that more than half — including many vendors — were not wearing face coverings. One booth sold face masks but neither vendor at the booth was wearing one.

Alleged mask violations have prompted at least 123 complaints to Valley county health departments since the mask order took effect. Two of them were about the flea market.

Connie Hughart, who co-owns the market, said they’ve been reminding visitors of the mask mandate over the loudspeaker, have tried to spread out vendors and have moved auctions online. When asked about food vendors working without masks, she said it was too hot, adding that they have medical assistance available because people frequently pass out due to the heat.

“That’s a health hazard in this heat. They are their own businesses. They need to do what’s best for their health in those situations," she said. Some vendors might also be exempt under the order if they meet certain conditions, like working over a hot stove.

Hughart said the market is relying on the Columbiana County Health District to enforce the rules: "Columbiana [Health District] has been in contact with us. So far, they have not told us to do anything different than what we have been doing.”

The reliance on the health department points to a weakness in Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's mask order: Health departments are charged with enforcement but they can't issue citations — they have to get local law enforcement involved.

Since the mask order went into effect, Columbiana County has received 42 complaints about businesses and customers not complying with the mandate.

Laura Fauss, public information officer at Columbiana County Health District, said the office has reached out to the Rogers Flea Market and sent educational materials and signs for the market. 

"With anything, whether it's a sewage failure or this mask order, we make sure we follow the process," said Fauss. "Sending letters, notifying, educating, all those things come first before you get to handcuffs."

She also said the health district has limited resources given its other pandemic-related duties.

"There's like, 15 people in this office," said Fauss. "We're real small, and we're already doing our full time jobs, plus COVID, plus now enforcement ... We're trying to do the best we can with what we have now."

Fauss said the district is hoping to get funding from the state to be able to contract with local law enforcement to help with enforcement. 

Nearby health departments have also been inundated with complaints. Trumbull County Combined Health District has received 81 mask-related complaints since July 23. Mahoning County Public Health officials would not release complaints that were still open but said “complaints have gone up tremendously.”

“Rather than focusing on enforcement, we’ve been focusing on education. We feel that’s the best way to stop the spread of this virus,” said Colton Masters, a sanitarian at MCPH.

When MCPH receives a complaint about a business, a sanitarian calls the business. Repeat offenders get a visit. After that, officials might contact police, but MCPH hasn’t gone there yet. 

A complaint about employees not wearing masks will be closed if the business provides a written policy that exempts employees from wearing a mask. Numerous caveats in Ohio's mask order allow exemptions not only for working over a hot stove, but for other reasons such as medical conditions. 

Since the district started enforcing the mask mandate, it's maintained its focus on educating businesses, even if the offender is a customer. By the time a district representative visits the business, the customer in question is probably gone. 

"Our thought process is if we can educate the employees, then the employees can educate the people come in through the door," said Masters. "I can’t stand at the entrance to a facility all day and try to educate each person that walks through the door.”

While there have been a few notable offenders, the health departments agreed that the mandate has resulted in more people wearing masks in public.  

“More people are starting to feel more comfortable wearing a mask," Masters said. "It’s not as novel of an idea as what it started out to be.”

Jess Hardin

About the Author: Jess Hardin

Jess Hardin is a reporter for Mahoning Matters. She grew up in Pittsburgh and last worked at The Vindicator. Jess graduated from Georgetown University.
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