Masks no longer will be required at Portage County buildings, commissioners say

Diane Smith
Record-Courier
Nancy Chia, AxessPointe pharmacist, reviews paperwork and asks additional questions to a man waiting to be vaccinated. AxessPointe administered 500 first doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

People who walk into, or work in, buildings under the control of Portage County Commissioners, won't have to wear face coverings, commissioners decided last week.

Meanwhile, county health officials said the decision does not apply to them, and that health district staff will continue to wear masks and encourage visitors to do the same.

More:Ohio COVID-19 maps: More orange, yellow counties, fewer red; statewide case number continues to drop

Although the policy applies to people who are "fully vaccinated," commissioners said visitors won't be asked about their vaccine status.

The county legislation addresses an announcement from Gov. Mike DeWine that the majority of his health orders will be rescinded on June 2. The motion also references the CDC's change in guidance and safety procedures for people who are fully vaccinated.

"The Portage County Board of Commissioners will not require fully vaccinated persons ... to wear a facial covering when entering Portage County buildings that are under the control of the Board of Commissioners," the order states. Elected officials, they said, can make their own decision within their own offices, even if those offices are in the county  administration building.

Portage County was finally downgraded to orange on the Ohio Public Health Advisory System, thanks to a drop in new cases, Health Director Joseph Diorio said.

However, department heads that are not elected won't be able to require workers to wear masks, commissioners said.

Janet Kovick, the county's human resources director, said Kellijo Jeffries, head of Job & Family Services of Portage County, still wants her staff to wear masks. Kovick said Jeffries is concerned about another outbreak. Of the 230 county employees who took COVID leave, 72 of them came from Jeffries' department.

More:Ohio reports 1,208 new COVID-19 cases Thursday

Commissioners said while elected officials can make that decision if they want, department heads who are not elected cannot require face coverings. However, individual employees can make the decision for themselves, they said.

"It doesn't make any sense," Commissioner Tony Badalamenti said of requiring masks.

Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett said there is no reason for employees to wear face coverings if all people in the room are vaccinated. 

JoAnn Townend, director of internal services, clarified the decision with commissioners, who told her that security wouldn't  have to argue with visitors over whether or not they were vaccinated. Temperature checks are no longer needed, although Townend said she would put the machines in storage in case of another public health crisis.

Health Director Joseph Diorio said the decision does not apply to the health district. He said he just met with his department's staff, who will continue to wear masks. He said they will follow up when the governor issues his order June 2.

People who will go to their department will be offered masks, although they are optional. Any employee of the health district, as well as any adult, can now be vaccinated through the health district, Diorio said.

While adults will most likely be able to remove their masks on June 2, he said the expected order doesn't apply to school children, who should remain masked through the end of the school year, because most students cannot yet be vaccinated. So far, the vaccine is only available to those over 12.

Masks also will continue to be required in congregate settings such as nursing homes, to protect any people there who cannot be vaccinated. 

More:How will local business, government react to the end of masks?

Diorio said last week that as of Thursday the health district had administered 30,000 doses of the vaccine itself, not counting other providers in the county.

"That's quite a feat," he said. Countywide, he said, 69,553 people have received at least one dose of a vaccine. As many as 500 people can be vaccinated every hour at the field house, he said, and the vaccination clinic will be open as long as there is a demand for the vaccines. 

Cases in Portage County, have fallen, from a peak of 185 new cases a day in December to 14 cases per day last week. The Ohio Department of Health announced last week that Portage County had finally turned orange on the Ohio Public Health Advisory System, after being ranked red for months. The ODH stated that the county now meets two of seven indicators, those dealing with new cases per capita and non-congregate cases. 

Commissioners also agreed to put an end date in place for many of the county's internal COVID policies, including extra time off. It will end by June 2.

Kovick said department heads have been asking for a deadline, because they have a hard time staffing their departments.