Ohio House approves bill limiting DeWine action on health quarantines

Marc Kovac
The Columbus Dispatch
Members of the Ohio House of Representatives mingle at various distances inside the House Chambers at the Ohio Statehouse before a session began on Wednesday.

Over a promised veto from Gov. Mike DeWine, the Ohio House approved legislation Thursday that would block state health officials’ quarantine orders for residents who have not been exposed to or diagnosed with disease, the latest effort by lawmakers to place limits on the authority of the governor’s administration during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

Senate Bill 311 also would enable lawmakers to rescind certain Ohio Department of Health orders or rules aimed at stopping the spread of infectious disease.

Backers say the proposed law changes would provide a needed check on wider orders that impact residents’ civil liberties, lives and livelihoods.

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Opponents counter that the legislation would harmfully limit health officials’ ability to effectively address infectious diseases and outbreaks.

The bill passed the Ohio House’s State and Local Government Committee Thursday morning and was OK'd by the full chamber later in the day by a vote of 58-32.

A day earlier, the House approved separate legislation that would allow businesses to remain open during pandemics if they observe safety requirements and precautions.

DeWine already has promised to veto both bills.

Asked about the legislation during his Thursday afternoon press conference, DeWine said: “This would be devastating. This bill would make Ohio slow to respond to a crisis… If by chance it would pass, I would veto the bill because I would have a moral obligation to do so.”

SB 311 earlier passed the Ohio Senate on a vote of 20-13, but the count in the House was just shy of the margin needed to override a veto.

State Representative Larry Householder (Rep.) speaks with another member inside the House Chambers at the Ohio Statehouse before a session began on Wednesday.

SB 311 would block the Ohio Department of Health from issuing general, mandatory statewide or regional quarantine or isolation orders aimed at preventing the spread of infectious disease, if such orders apply to people who have not been directly exposed or medically diagnosed with those diseases, according to an analysis by the state’s Legislative Service Commission.

The legislation also would allow lawmakers to rescind special or standing health orders.

“For nearly nine months, we have seen one branch of government imposing government order after order after order on Ohioans with full force and effective criminal law and penalties but without consulting with the actual branch of government whose job it is to draft legislation and actual law,” said Rep. Scott Wiggam, R-Wooster. "This will allow the general assembly to have a say and representation of their constituents across Ohio when it comes to protecting their rights against government overreach."

Proponents say the legislation is needed to update laws that have been in place since the late 1800s. About 200 supporters of the bill submitted committee testimony Wednesday and Thursday urging passage, noting economic and other negative impacts of earlier health orders on residents and businesses.

“All we’re saying is don’t make the cure worse than the disease," said Rep. J. Todd Smith, R-Farmersville. "We can do this right, where we can save lives without destroying livelihoods.”

Rep. Craig Riedel, R-Defiance, added later: “A lot of the things that the governor’s done are out of good intentions… but for goodness sakes, for crying out loud, it’s eight and a half months later. … And this chamber has been parked on the side, we have been stiff armed, however you want to say it. But we have not been engaged at all in the conversation. … I don’t feel like a lot of the things that we’ve suggested have really been heeded.”

About 50 others submitted testimony opposing SB 311, including Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, incoming chief medical officer at the Ohio Department of Health.

The legislation “takes away public health’s ability to be nimble in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and will limit the ability of public health officials to respond to future infectious disease outbreaks and potential acts of bioterrorism,” he told committee members Thursday morning. “We ask that you oppose this legislation in the interest of Ohioans, who are counting on us to give them the guidance and tools they need to protect themselves, their families, and their communities against this enemy.”

He added later: “The enemy is not each other. The enemy is this virus, and it’s a nasty, rotten virus. And it is tearing at the fabric of our culture. I don’t like it, I’m sure none of you like it. But we need to remember that the enemy here is the virus.”

Rep. Beth Liston, D-Dublin and a practicing physician, opposed the bill, noting increasing coronavirus case numbers and the growing strain on hospitals and health-care workers.

“The members of this legislative body are not experts in medicine or public health or infectious diseases,” she said. “… Our role is not to undermine experts with a vague law that goes against the recommendations of the entire medical community.”

Rep. Allison Russo, D-Columbus, also expressed concern about ambiguous wording of the legislation, questioning how the law changes would actually be applied.

Thursday’s committee and floor debates on SB 311 spotlighted the divided positions on how to address COVID-19, with Democrats mostly wearing masks and many Republicans refraining.

Early in Thursday’s House session, Rep. Kristin Boggs, D-Columbus, moved to adopt a rule change to require mask wearing by lawmakers, noting rising infection rates and ongoing health concerns in Franklin County and statewide.

“We cannot continue to embrace this cavalier attitude toward masks,” she said.

The proposed rule change failed on a vote of 31-58.

mkovac@dispatch.com

@OhioCapitalBlog