State Health Director to Close Polls Due to Health Emergency While Primary Battle Continues

Mar 16, 2020

It appears Ohio's primary is off again. 

In a release issued Monday night, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton will order polls to be closed on Tuesday due to a health emergency. 

The situation capped an evening of uncertainty that began Monday afternoon when the governor and Secretary of State Frank LaRose said they wanted to push the primary to June 2 to protect the health of citizens concerned about the spread of COVID-19. 

State law, though, does not give them the power to do that. So a court action was filed on behalf of voters. Monday evening Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Frye rejected the attempt to delay the primary. The Columbus Dispatch reported that Frye said it would be a "terrible precedent" for a judge to step in 12 hours before polls open to rewrite the election code.

Earlier Monday, DeWine said state officials had heard from voters and workers concerned that polling places could contribute to the spread of the coronavirus. 

"We should not force them to make this choice — the choice between their health and their constitutional rights and duties as American citizens," DeWine said. 

The state had to file suit because under law, the only way the governor could move the date is if there were an invasion. While he believes that aptly describes what's happening with the coronavirus, he does not think that's what was intended by the law. So they pursued the delay in the courts. 

In the latest statement the governor said, "While the polls will be closed tomorrow (Tuesday), Secretary of State Frank LaRose will seek a remedy through the courts to extend voting options so that every voter who wants to vote will be granted that opportunity."

Absentee voting could be available until the proposed new election date. Initially, Ohio was going to go on with voting as scheduled. But then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning over the weekend to limit gatherings to no more than 50 people. 

"(Tuesday's) in-person voting cannot conform with CDC guidelines. We cannot conduct this election," DeWine said. 

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said this gives Ohioans ample opportunity to request a ballot and cast it without putting themselves at risk for contracting COVID-19 at polling locations.

Not only does it protect voters, but also the 35,000 poll workers, Husted said. 

"The health and safety of our fellow Ohioans is not negotiable," Husted said. 

Georgia and Louisiana have also postponed their primaries.

The goal is to get everybody through this, DeWine said.  

"We don't have any experience with this. It's a once-in-a-hundred year crisis. So we have to come together," DeWine said. "We have been invaded. We have to treat this like we would any huge, huge national crisis." 

On Sunday, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose issued an order to extend the deadline for voters to request absentee voting. The order also sought to have curbside voting available in all 88 counties. 

DeWine is also issuing another order to close the following facilities by end of business Monday: gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, public recreation centers, movie theaters, indoor water parks and indoor trampoline parks. 

"Everyone is moving full-court press," said Dr. Amy Acton, the director of the Ohio Department of Health. As of Monday, 50 cases have been confirmed in 12 counties. The first case was confirmed a week ago. 

The youngest case confirmed is a 14 year old. The median age is 51, Acton said. 

"We are all having to make some very hard decisions right now," Acton said. 

Husted asked business owners to look out for employees as more facilities begin to shut down amid the outbreak. 

"You're going to need those employees. Take care of them. Help them out," Husted said. 

The state issued an order Sunday that extends unemployment benefits to those affected by the pandemic. Husted said since the annoucenment, the number of those who filed for unemployment went from around 560 to 1,200. For more details on how to receive unemployment assistance, click here.   

DeWine also decided to close bars and restaurants Sunday night after he received letters of concern about crowds for St. Patrick's Day. 

Schools K-12 also shut down officially Monday afternoon, although many decided to close earlier. At first, DeWine said schools will close for three weeks. Sunday he said that deadline may be extended depending on the spread of COVID-19.

Acton said Sunday cases started surfacing around Feb. 7. She said the numbers being reported now are just the "tip of the iceburg" and believes hundreds of thousands of people across the state are carrying COVID-19 but could be asymptomatic.

"There are many cases that are undetected. There are many asymptomatic people. Each and every one of us must suspect that we have it or are carrying it," Acton said.

Symptoms can take six to 14 days to appear. Those symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness of breath.  

Acton said the delay in testing is what's going to make cases seem like they're being confirmed at a rapid pace. Acton and DeWine said the increase in cases is expected. 

Lori Criss, the director for the Ohio Department of Addiction and Mental Health Services, gave some tips on how to relieve stress during the pandemic. She said: 

  • If you need help, call a friend or a professional
  • Get information from trusted sources
  • Limit media exposure
  • Pay attention to signs of stress — eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or not enough, etc. 
  • Find new ways to keep doing the things you love

As DeWine said, "We're in this for long run."

Many changes have been made in the state to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Here's what has happened over the last week:

  • University of Akron has decided to keep classes online for the rest of the semester. The school has also asked students to leave the residence halls by 11 p.m. Wednesday. 
  • Kent State employee is has tested negative for COVID-19 after coming into contact with a patient who has the disease. Students have been ordered to leave the residence halls by the end of the week and are eligible for a refund. The university has also announced it will start limiting operations at all eight campuses Monday afternoon. 
  • Bars and restaurants closed down Sunday night temporarily to prevent large gatherings. DeWine said he came to the decision after he received multiple complaints about crowds over the weekend. Carry-out and delivery options are still available. 
  • Ohio's unemployment law will be extended to help those who are put out of work because of the pandemic. For more details, click here
  • The state is implementing a COVID-19 treatment plan for individuals with an addiction or mental health issues. This includes more telehealth services that will allow patients to videochat professionals or call a landline. The plan will also implement a service that will allow people to get their medications without having to physically go to a pharmacy. Pharmacies are making sure they have adequate supplies of medications
  • The Cleveland Clinic is officially offering drive-thru coronavirus testing with a doctor's order. It's in partnership with University Hospitals, which will offer the service beginning Monday. The testing location is in University Circle.
  • Summit County confirmed its first case of COVID-19 Friday. A woman in her 50s is a case of community spread, which means she didn't travel or have direct contact with other COVID-19 patients. The county and the city of Akron have declared public health emergencies. All community centers in Akron will close Monday. Polling locations will still be open for the primary Tuesday. Some locations have been moved out of nursing homes. Check the list here
  • President Donald Trump declared a national emergency Friday under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. This allows the White House to get direct aid quickly from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for disasters and health crises. Trump has also been tested for COVID-19 and doesn't have it.  
  • Lawmakers plan to send a letter to Trump with 17 requests for state relief, such as having access to more protective equipment for health care workers. 
  • DeWine issued an order that prohibits visitors in jails. The state also isn't allowing visitors in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and psychiatric facilities. 
  • Ohio K-12 schools will shut down Monday afternoon for three weeks. Some have already closed. DeWine said he will help schools with whatever they need, but it's up to administrators to figure out how to determine details of educating students while they're at home and when they return. 
  • Kent State University, Oberlin College and Ohio State University have canceled in-person classes for the rest of the semester. Classes will be online. Large gatherings such as graduation will be reevaluated at a later date. Many colleges have suspended in-person classes until mid-April. 
  • Ohio has temporarily banned mass gatherings of 100 or more people together in close promiximity in a certain place. This includes parades, fairs, theaters and more. 
  • Many events have been canceled across the state. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame postponed its induction ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence is no longer visiting Summit County and the Mid-American Conference (MAC) tournament canceled the rest of its games, along with many other conferences like NCAA. 

For all the latest information on the coronavirus outbreak, click here

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect who is filing the lawsuit. It has been updated to include information about the status of the lawsuit and local election plans. We will continue to follow developments and update information as it becomes available.