COLUMBUS, Ohio – Early during the coronavirus outbreak, Ohio’s Republican governor appeared prophetic with his decisive steps to ban spectators from a sports expo, shut down all schools before any other state and put a stop to the presidential primary.
Since then, Gov. Mike DeWine has backtracked away from a statewide mask mandate, delivered mixed messages on large gatherings, faced a mutiny within his party over business closures and juggled listening to both health experts and those who doubt them. For DeWine, navigating a path out of the state’s pandemic shutdown has been a bumpy one.
His aggressive moves that won early praise have tilted toward messages of personal responsibility, following the direction of governors in Republican-leaning states who resisted wide crackdowns. But now that the virus is surging again in Ohio, DeWine is taking what he calls a “surgical, precise approach” by requiring masks in just the hardest-hit counties even as some states are issuing wider and stricter measures.
The question is: Can this balancing act work?
It’s a strategy that has encountered criticism from all sides: those who think that his edicts have gone too far and those who believe he’s backed down from protecting the public.
“The same people who are telling me this mask mandate is crazy, are the same people who are saying to me, well, you can’t shut business down,” DeWine, 73, said in an interview with The Associated Press last week. “I agree we have to keep business open, but their failure to wear a mask does not help businesses move forward.”
In a televised address Wednesday, DeWine appealed to Ohioans on an emotional level to make “once-in-a-hundred year sacrifices” to protect their neighbors — whether or not the government requires them to do so.
With allusions to the death tolls taken by the Spanish flu epidemic and the Vietnam War, he implored Ohioans to wear face coverings at all times when they're in public, but issued no mandate. He said the strategy over four to six weeks “could drive this epidemic to the ground.”
“Friends, this is not a drill. It certainly is not any hoax. This is not a dress rehearsal,” he said, predicting disaster as has been seen in New York, Florida and Arizona if people don't take action now.
Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper wrote on Twitter that DeWine’s refusal to require masks statewide was “absolutely unacceptable and inexplicable” when other states with fewer cases already have done so.
DeWine, who has been elected to almost every position in Ohio during a 40-year political career, has consistently warned of the dangers of the virus while standing alongside a knowledgeable health director, Dr. Amy Acton, who resigned last month amid harsh pushback for exercising her emergency powers to close businesses and keep people home for weeks.
But DeWine has wavered on mask-wearing. In April, he announced a statewide requirement inside all businesses and then changed his mind the next day, dropping the order for customers, saying people found the idea “offensive.” That's forced several Ohio cities to issue their own mask rules in response to rising case numbers.
DeWine has also been careful not to condemn other Republicans, including President Donald Trump, any time they’ve downplayed the threat. When Vice President Mike Pence stopped at an auto plant in Ohio last month, DeWine stayed away, explaining that he and his wife were still avoiding crowds.
Ohio isn’t a hot spot now, but last week the state saw its highest daily total of confirmed cases - around 1,500 - since reopening. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut recently added Ohio to a list of states whose residents are asked to quarantine when visiting.
Polls in Ohio have shown Republicans and Democrats alike giving DeWine high marks for his performance during the outbreak.
Even those who disagree with DeWine’s specific policies believe he’s doing what he thinks is best for the state, said Jai Chabria, a Republican strategist who served as senior adviser to former Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“And that’s a departure from the way in which they perceive politicians,” he said.
Michelle Shaffer, who lives near Columbus, said she didn’t vote for DeWine but was impressed with the governor’s early response. "I feel now that he’s just bending to the will of politicians and protesters,” she said.
On Wednesday, he reminded Ohioans of those early victories to get buy-in for wearing masks and staying away from fun summer activities, including family reunions.
“At the start of this pandemic, Ohioans set an example for the rest of this country,” he said. “You showed the world what is possible when we work together. I remain an optimist and I truly believe we will rise out of this.”
Democratic Rep. Stephanie Howse, leader of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, said DeWine has gone from leader to politician in recent weeks.
“That’s the real shift. That is what happens when you buckle under pressure.”
But it’s those in DeWine's own party, who in the past applauded his strong anti-abortion beliefs, who have been giving him the most grief.
A group of county Republican leaders in one of the state’s most reliably conservative regions told DeWine in a letter last month that his “big government approach” had caused wide economic damage and that “you have disappointed your party faithful.”
Republicans who control Ohio’s Legislature have been just as vocal, accusing DeWine and his administration of bypassing lawmakers before effectively shutting down the presidential primary in March and overstepping his authority while directing Acton to issue emergency health orders.
House Majority Leader Bill Seitz called the decisions “substantial infringements on what we believe to be the legislative process."
The criticism may have swayed DeWine from putting broad restrictions on the economy again, said Senate President Larry Obhof. “I think the Legislature would respond very badly to another attempt at a shutdown," he said.
DeWine told the AP he's more worried about the virus than his critics.
Seewer reported from Toledo. Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.