Local Politics: Republican bill targets public health orders

It's a hell of a thing that YouTube has higher standards than the Ohio Senate, but that's where things stand these days

By Craig Calcaterra
Gov. Mike DeWine and then-State Health Director Dr. Amy Acton announced the first three detected cases of COVID-19 in Ohio 11 months ago -- on March 9, 2020.

Last week, the Ohio Senate passed a bill giving lawmakers dramatically increased authority over public health orders and state of emergency declarations. If it becomes a law, the bill creates a committee that would, basically, empower the legislature to veto orders issued by the governor and the Ohio Department of Health aimed at combating the pandemic and future emergencies facing the state.

The stated purpose for the bill, and for a companion piece currently working its way through the House (which will likely be passed and then reconciled with the Senate bill), is the promotion of democracy and the imposition of checks and balances on what its sponsors claim is too much power in the hands of the governor. They say that it's not aimed at current orders with respect to the pandemic but, rather, "what will be going on five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now and the overreach of different parts of government."

This, of course, is unmitigated baloney.

If you doubt that, look no further than the parade of proponents of the bill who Senate Republicans invited to testify in its favor, almost all of whom voiced grievances about hardships — some serious, many not so serious — occasioned by pandemic-driven shutdown orders. There was a grand total of 75 minutes of testimony from health experts, all of whom opposed the bill and characterized it as dangerous. There was substantially more testimony from anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers and propagators of outright misinformation who equated the anti-pandemic measures taken by the governor and public health officials with tyranny.

One of those who testified was Delaware City Councilwoman Lisa Keller, who claimed that masks don't work, COVID "cases" are not "illnesses," and that only the elderly are impacted by the virus. Keller, who is not elderly, concluded her testimony by noting she, herself, recently contracted COVID-19.

Another witness in favor of the bill was an attorney named Tom Renz, who filed a lawsuit last fall seeking to overturn any and all health orders related to the pandemic. His lawsuit is poised to be thrown out by the presiding judge, who called it "incomprehensible." His testimony before the legislature, which was posted to YouTube by an anti-vaxxer group he represents, was quickly taken down for violating YouTube’s terms of service related to misinformation.

It's a hell of a thing that YouTube has higher standards than the Ohio Senate, but that's where things stand these days: In a place where misinformation and a twisted pro-"freedom" ideology reign at the expense of the health and well-being of the public. 

That pro-freedom stance, seen last spring when business interests and a GOP insurgency were successful in pushing Gov. Mike DeWine to reopen the economy before any substantial headway had been made against the virus, has now morphed into a pro-"medical freedom" movement that has found considerable support in the legislature, with "medical freedom" serving as code for anti-vaccination sentiment. That movement is at least partially responsible for reports that millions of Ohioans either "probably" or "definitely" won't get a COVID vaccine, and seeks to provide legal cover for anyone who would otherwise be required to get a vaccine but who would prefer to not.

DeWine has vowed to veto any bill which seeks to undermine his or the Health Department's authority, and he has done so in the past. This latest bill, however, has more support than previous ones and an override of his expected veto wouldn’t be surprising. Given that COVID is for now on the wane and enough people will likely get the vaccine to give us basic herd immunity in the coming months, the legislature having veto power over emergency health orders is unlikely to prove immediately disastrous. 

The existence of such power will, at some point, however, provide Ohioans an object lesson in what happens to a society when those in charge of it are beholden to crackpots and charlatans who adhere to an ideology that is antithetical to its survival.