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Don’t let Ohio GOP lawmakers hamstring efforts to protect people from latest COVID surge

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Groups opposed to mandated vaccinations protest on the grounds of the Ohio Statehouse, inside the House Health Committee meets to discuss HB 248 which would prohibit mandatory vaccinations and vaccination status disclosures, Tuesday, August 24, 2021. Graham Stokes/Freelance Photographer

Many of our expectations and assumptions about politics have been upended over the past five years. But nothing is quite as disturbing as the Republican Party’s ongoing war against local efforts to protect community members — including children — from the deadly and costly effects of a still-raging pandemic.

In Ohio, this is manifested in several proposed or passed bills that instead of helping communities and schools slow the disease’s local spread, perversely make that battle more difficult. While this is being done in the name of personal freedom, it bears no resemblance to the broad freedoms guaranteed in this country’s Constitution and foundational principles.

We can be certain that the United States’ founders did not intend to enshrine in this nation’s legal or ideological framework the freedom to take actions that threaten or harm your neighbors. For example, the Constitution does not protect a person’s right to drain raw sewage onto a neighbor’s property. Likewise, it doesn’t protect a person’s right to disregard reasonable public-health restrictions intended to protect others from being infected with a dangerous and disruptive virus.

It’s hard to imagine a more grotesque mockery of America’s legacy of freedom that using Revolutionary War imagery and sloganeering (cue up “Don’t Tread on Me”) to demonstrate against mask and vaccine mandates (or even incentives or encouragement in some cases) in communities and schools, or by private entities such as hospitals, insurers, public venues, restaurants, stores and other businesses.

If a government can order you to wear a seatbelt in an automobile, or a store to require shoes and shirt, it’s ludicrous to suggest they can’t take reasonable, science-based steps to slow the spread of a virus that by the end of September is expected to kill more Americans than the Spanish flu epidemic did between 1918 and 1921.

Strip the veneer of ersatz freedom covering many Republican governors and legislatures’ position on the pandemic and you’re left with selfish, adolescent posturing. When stacked up against how COVID-19 continues to ravage this country’s health-care system, economy, communities, schools and families, the personal freedom argument resembles an eighth-grader whining about his rights being violated after being told he can’t chew gum in class.

OHIO STANDS NOT FAR behind Texas, Florida and Arizona when it comes to legislative efforts to hamstring communities, school districts and others’ efforts to fight the pandemic.

The biggest current legislative threat is House Bill 248, a law that would prohibit hospitals, nursing homes, colleges and others from requiring vaccines of their employees or students. Astonishingly, this legislation would apply equally to COVID-19 and other preventable communicable diseases such as influenza, measles, polio and more. H.B. 248 additionally would bar insurance companies “from mandating, incentivizing or even requesting that those within their risk pool get vaccinated,” according to a Sept. 2 article posted by the Ohio Capital Journal.

So much for the GOP being the pro-business party in America.

Other proposed bills would mimic anti-mask orders or legislation in several other states. A bill introduced Aug. 24 by state Reps. Mike Loychik, R-Bazetta, and Jean Schmidt, R-Loveland, would prohibit Ohio public schools from requiring their students to wear masks in school and on school buses. House Bill 400 has 24 GOP cosponsors in the Ohio House.

They include Rep. Jay Edwards, whose county (Athens) includes several school districts that, facing COVID spread among staff and/or students, quickly implemented mask requirements for students over the past two weeks. These school boards and superintendents felt compelled to act after planned school openings were sabotaged by COVID-19/delta outbreaks among students, bus drivers and/or staff. (One can’t help wondering how Edwards would explain his support for H.B. 400 to teachers, parents and students in his hometown school district in Nelsonville. On Wednesday, the Nelsonville-York School Board enacted a mask policy for staff and students, effective this Friday, Sept. 10.)

This continuing drama has been repeated across Ohio and the country as a major COVID surge powered by the hyper-infectious delta variant fills hospitals, sickens and kills thousands, and once again threatens to cripple the national and local economies.

If H.B. 400 had been in effect the past two weeks, these mainly rural school districts in Athens, my home county, would have been powerless to take one of the most effective, proven actions to prevent the virus’ spread, requiring students to wear masks.

Clearly, Reps. Loychik, Schmidt and Edwards do not have a better idea of how to protect schoolchildren than local school officials who are directly accountable to parents and communities, or the health authorities who advise those school boards and superintendents.

Loychik, in an Aug. 18 letter to the superintendent of the Lakeview School District in Mahoning, his home county, wrote (according to an article in the Vindicator in Youngstown):

“I’d like for you to take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of a kindergartner who is starting their educational career, which should be an exciting, positive moment, only to be forcibly masked… I saw that discontent not only with my son this morning while dropping him off for his first day of school, but I could also see it in the eyes of other children.”

As the grandparent of two kids in Ohio public schools, I’d like for Rep. Loychik to take a moment and put himself into the shoes of the many parents who are terrified of putting their kids back into schools that might be legally barred from taking the most basic steps to protect them from a virus that’s increasingly putting children in hospitals.

And that nonsense about detecting “discontent… in the eyes” of his own kid and others, that would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical.

At the heart of Loychik and many other Republican elected officials’ obstructionist approach to fighting the pandemic is their apparent indifference (or willful ignorance) to the fact that the coronavirus is infectious. That’s remarkable considering easy airborne spread is its most prominent characteristic.

Yet, we keep hearing these arguments — let each parent decide about masking in school for his or her own kids; let each person decide for him/herself about wearing one in the grocery store or hospital; let each individual make his or her own personal choice about getting a vaccine, without any mandates or even incentives. All of these arguments only make sense in a non-existent world where this particular virus doesn’t spread easily from one person to another.

When a child attends school without a mask and contracts COVID-19 from another unmasked kid, then infects three or four other children, some of whom go home and endanger vulnerable adults, this has stopped being a matter of personal freedom. It’s now an issue of personal responsibility and public health.

Another popular line from these folks is “we can trust people to make the right decisions for themselves and their families.”

We obviously can’t trust many Republican elected officials to support common-sense steps to combat this pandemic. Why would we assume they or their supporters would make the right decisions for themselves? Or that those decisions wouldn’t potentially endanger other people?


Terry Smith in May left The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio, after editing that award-winning publication for 34 years. His columns and editorials have placed first in the Ohio New Media Association’s annual weekly newspaper awards in recent years. Before returning to Athens and his alma mater, Ohio University, in 1986, Smith reported for newspapers in Ohio, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado and West Virginia. He is currently freelance editing and writing from his home in Athens.

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


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