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COLUMBUS — Gov. Mike DeWine plans to begin a “new phase” of Ohio’s coronavirus response — one that involves a slow transition back to some semblance of normal life — on May 1. How?
“It is essential that, as we start back, we do this the right way," he said in a Thursday afternoon news conference. "We must get this right because the stakes are very high. If we don’t do it right, the consequences are horrendous."
Groups of protesters have become a familiar sight outside the state capitol since last week, when their calls to relax safety restrictions on public life and fire Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton became so loud they were audible inside the room where DeWine delivers his daily news briefings.
Some lawmakers within the Ohio Republican Party have publicly urged DeWine to speed up the process of reopening businesses to buoy the state's economy. Other pushes for legislators to hurry the country back to normalcy despite the continuing pandemic have emerged in Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Texas and more — sometimes from protesters, sometimes from the president of the United States.
DeWine acknowledged Thursday that the virus had created conjoined twin crises: One medical, one economic, each feeding off the other. The Ohio Department of Health confirmed 611 cases of COVID-19 between Wednesday and Thursday afternoon; unemployment officials had recorded over 850,000 unemployment claims since the crisis began.
However, DeWine said, it's a two-front war, not a zero-sum game. He said he believes the state can revitalize its economy without sacrificing necessary safety precautions.
“My commitment to you is that I will fight just as hard to bring this economy back — I will give it everything I have, and I am doing that — as I have to fight to save lives of Ohioans," he said.
Whatever happens in Ohio will happen gradually, he added. The gears don't all start turning again in unison. The businesses that reopen first will be those that have proven they can keep their workers and customers safe with measures like temperature-testing on entry, mandating the use of respiratory masks and enforcing a six-foot physical distance between employees.
“The workplace is going to change," DeWine said. "COVID-19 is still here and there's an all likelihood going to be here, and we're going to live with it until we have immunization.”
The question of reopening schools remains unresolved pending meetings with superintendents throughout the state. Large public gatherings such as concerts, sporting events and state fairs sit at the end of the timeline, possibly after the creation of a vaccine.
Many concrete decisions will be finalized closer to May 1 as experts continue to monitor the state’s supply of personal protective equipment, its number of deaths and diagnoses, and its available hospital space.
Even as the summer begins, however, DeWine said Ohioans should expect to continue social distancing, frequent hand-washing and wearing masks. People who are in high-risk groups should continue to think first of their own safety and limit their contact with possible vectors for infection.
“The world that we’re going to see is a different world,” he said.
Warren County resident Kerri McKenna watched Governor DeWine's announcement from her home near Loveland.
“I’m nervous of course," she said. "I’m nervous for our healthcare facilities and our health care workers. Right now they’re able to manage and handle it and I would hate to see our numbers jump.”
Pat Ullman, owner of The Donut Shop, said she trusts DeWine is acting on sound advice from Ohio's health department.
“I think it’s time to give it a try and let the people prove that we know what the difference is between distancing and overcrowding,” she said.
Ullman said her reasons aren't entirely altruistic.
“I think it’s going to alleviate some stress. We’ve lost a lot of business. We’ve lost some outside orders," she said.
According to DeWine, the state will continue to monitor hospital admissions, PPE and testing availability and adjust the plan for businesses accordingly.
ODH has diagnosed a total of 8,239 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. At least 373 people have died after contracting the virus, and 2,331 have been hospitalized.