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Ohio Biz Fairness Act passes House to prevent future COVID-19 shutdowns




Photo Credit: Mike Licht

‘All businesses are essential,’ lawmaker says

A bill seeking to prevent any future COVID-19 business shutdowns as part of a pandemic response took a major step Wednesday toward reaching Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk.

House Bill 621, nicknamed the Business Fairness Act, passed the Ohio House of Representatives with bipartisan support and now awaits action by the state senate.

It would allow an Ohio business to stay open even if ODH issues an order for them to close — so long as the business can otherwise follow the state’s health guidelines.

The bill is one of numerous pieces of legislation introduced this year which targets the Ohio Department of Health’s authority to respond to a pandemic. Among these, HB 621 is one of the few Republican-led bills to receive support from Democratic lawmakers.

Following the House vote, Gov. Mike DeWine called the legislation “misguided” and threatened to veto it should the senate also approve it, Statehouse News Bureau journalist Karen Kasler reported.

Back in the spring, ODH closed some businesses considered to be non-essential as a means of reducing public contact and thus slow the spread of COVID-19. The state allowed “essential” industries to stay open, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and hotels.

This led to some small businesses to close while other businesses selling the identical products were allowed to stay open. State Reps. Jon Cross, R-Kenton, and Shane Wilkin, R-Lynchburg, introduced the bill in May, arguing the business shutdowns were unfair and arbitrary in nature.

On Wednesday, lawmakers offered anecdotes of this perceived unfairness within their districts. Cross told of various shops in Kenton having to close while big box stores remained open.

“The most greatest insult to any business is to tell any business that you’re not essential,” Cross said. “All businesses in Ohio are essential.”

“Science is science,” said Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, adding the threat of viral spread does not change from business to business.

“There is no difference between a jewelry business Rep. Cross talked about and the jewelry counter at Wal-Mart,” Koehler said. “I don’t need to be a doctor to understand that.”

Nearly two-dozen Democrats supported the bill, though some offered caution before the vote. Rep. Brigid Kelly of Cincinnati, who voted no, said any focus on aiding businesses must be matched by a focus on the health consequences.

“We have to have some balance in our policy … we have to really think about what are we doing for everyday Ohioans and how do we strike that balance between a healthy economy and keeping Ohioans physically healthy and well,” Kelly said. “Because we can’t do one without the other.”

An effort to pass the bill with an emergency clause failed, which would have removed the 90-day waiting period for it to be enacted. The bill is now in the hands of the Ohio Senate.

For Cross, the bill is a matter of supporting Ohio entrepreneurs and workers.

“House Bill 621 is not a political bill,” he said. “This is a bill for all of us in our districts to fight to keep businesses open. Fighting to protect those jobs or those people who work at those businesses. It’s not their fault Covid is here.”

This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.