If you don’t have a supply of masks handy, now is the time to stock up if you shop, ride a bus, visit a farmer’s market or venture out and about in much of Greater Akron.
Summit County Public Health announced Thursday that the county has moved to a Level 3 in the state’s advisory system, triggering mandatory face coverings while in public.
SCPH said in a release that it was alerted Thursday afternoon that the county had moved from Level two (orange) to Level 3 (red) in the Ohio Public Health Advisory System.
The Level 3 Risk designation means there is very high exposure and spread of COVID-19 in the county, SCPH said. Summit County residents are encouraged to limit activities as much as possible and to follow all current health orders.
Level 3 also mandates facial coverings be worn at all times. SCPH said this includes being in any indoor location that is not a residence. It also applies when being outdoors and unable to social distance from individuals who are not members of their household and when waiting for public transportation, a taxi, a private car service or ride sharing vehicle.
This does not apply to vehicles engaged in direct travel through a county that does not stop in that county.
Prior to Thursday’s announcement, local and county lawmakers across the area were expected to vote on measures that would require people to wear masks in public places, Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda said Wednesday.
"It’s time to protect each and every one of us," Skoda said. "If we don’t, we could become Florida or Texas," which are states whose healthcare systems are now overwhelmed by people sickened by COVID-19 since stay-at-home policies were relaxed amid the pandemic.
Wearing a mask is a primary prevention tool to stop the spread of the disease because COVID-19 is often passed through invisible sprays of saliva we all emit when we speak, cough or sneeze, Skoda said.
While the masks available to the public do not entirely block saliva from exiting or entering our mouths or noses like N-95 masks worn by health professionals, they do help block the largest droplets, which many health experts say carry a larger amount of the virus.
Most of the proposed mask legislation were in the works before Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday announced mandatory masking in neighboring Cuyahoga County and six other Ohio counties where COVID-19 transmission is soaring.
The state is requiring public masking in counties that have reached Level 3 on a new state pandemic emergency alert system, which is based on new COVID-19 cases per capita, sustained increases in new COVID-19 hospital admissions and other data.
Summit County’s latest case numbers have not been released at press time Thursday,
SCPH said the requirement to wear a facial covering will be in place until Summit County is no longer designated at a Level 3 in the Public Health Advisory System.
Stark, Medina, Portage and Wayne counties remained one level lower, Level 2 on the new alert system on Thursday, meaning there is increased spread there, but not severe. Portage County previously was at the lowest level, Level 1, with active exposure and spread.
Leaders in surrounding counties, with the exception of the city of Kent, appeared far less likely to mandate masks.
In Stark County, Canton Health Commissioner Jim Adams said he and Canton Mayor Tom Bernabei have repeatedly discussed requiring masks. But they decided not to do so because of the difficulty of enforcing such an order.
"We are of the opinion that we really don’t need that yet. In our community, we haven’t seen the rapid rise of the cases we’ve seen in the seven counties the governor took action in," Adams said.
Health officials in Medina, Wayne and Ashland counties were unaware of any proposed masking ordinances in their areas.
"I’d like to see people make the choice to wear a mask. It is the polite thing to do when in public," said Nick Cascarelli, Wayne County health commissioner.
Ashland County Health Commissioner Heather Reffett said health officials are not considering mask mandates for the county, but said she could not speak for the county commissioners.
And in Portage County, health officials said only Kent was considering mandatory masking.
In Summit County, where health officials estimate that only 15%-25% of people are wearing masks when they should be, it’s unclear if penalties for those who violate mask ordinances would be civil or criminal.
Under the state order, people could face misdemeanor charges, though DeWine said the state is emphasizing compliance, not punishment.
For more information about the Ohio Public Health Advisory System, visit http://coronavirus.ohio.gov. For more information about the coronavirus situation in Summit County visit https://www.scph.org/covid-19.
If you have questions, call the COVID-19 Call Line 330-926-5795. The call line is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Wooster Daily Record reporter Emily Morgan, Record-Courier reporter Eileen McClory and the Canton Repository contributed to this report.