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Wood Co. health commissioner prioritizing mask education over enforcement

The state administration has left enforcement of ODH orders and mask mandate up to local health departments.
Credit: Amy Steigerwald

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — After a spike in coronavirus cases in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine's administration issued a mask mandate last week in Wood County and other counties but left it to local health departments to enforce it.

This has been the case for all orders the state administration has issued since the beginning of the pandemic, according to DeWine's Press Secretary Daniel Tierney. 

Tierney and Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn said concerns over non-compliance with the current Ohio Department of Health order and the mask mandate should be directed to the local health department. 

Wood County Health Commissioner Ben Batey said not only the health department have inadequate resources to enforce every single violation, but his efforts will be focused on educating the public. 

"For us, it's just been primarily more education than enforcement. Enforcement becomes a big issue from a legal aspect as well as just a time constraint aspect," he said. 

But Ohio law clearly states no person shall violate any rule the department of health adopts to prevent a threat to the public caused by a pandemic, and health authorities as well as law enforcement agencies, such as the sheriff's office, shall enforce those rules. 

Those who violate a health department order can be charged with a misdemeanor of the second degree, according to the code. The current ODH Director's Stay Safe Ohio Order goes further and says violators can be fined $750 and spend up to 90 days in jail.

RELATED: Bowling Green City Council approves mask mandate

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Wasylyshyn said over the weekend his deputies haven't been enforcing social distancing measures listed in the ODH order and won't enforce the mandate either.

"It’s not our place to be driving around chasing people down for not wearing a mask, that’s just not what we’re going to be doing, we’re not gonna be driving around getting and knocking people over and tackling them and telling them to put a mask on," he said.

When it comes to making arrests and charging people with a misdemeanor, the sheriff referred to Ohio code section 3701.13 that says local health commissioners are the ones to decide on enforcement of health laws and orders. 

"If the health commissioner ordered me to do it (make arrests, enforce the mandate) that may be a different story, but the health commissioner is not ordering me to arrest people. The health commissioner has agreed the best way for us to deal with this is to defer to him," he said. 

Tierney said the governor never expected to see a lot of arrests under his orders since Ohioans have been pretty good about protecting each other throughout this pandemic.

"If somebody is out there, they're positive, they know they're positive and they're out there purposely infecting people, that rises to criminal behavior," he said. "And we may want to have our local health department and law enforcement work together on criminal prosecution." 

Batey echoed the sentiment, saying somebody would have to be "pretty defiant and belligerent" for the penalty of the order and the law to be leveraged against that person. He added, however, city-issued mandates would be more effective when it comes to enforcement and incentive for people to wear masks. 

"I think it will make it easier for people to recognize that when you're within the city, this is their requirement," he said. "And they do have some mechanisms that make it easier for them to enforce. They can set their standards to whatever level they want. And then that actually shows that law enforcement is going to be directly behind it." 

Batey said the health department has not issued any citations for any businesses throughout the pandemic. He said this is because the cases in which the health department has had to follow-up with businesses or event organizers for possible infractions, people have learned what they needed to do and complied with the guidelines.