Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration will soon mandate masks in seven of the state’s counties struggling with a resurgent coronavirus in a decision that is likely to escalate the tension brewing between the state’s GOP leader and his critics within his own party.
The list includes the three most populous counties in the state that have seen a rising number of cases in the weeks following a gradual reopening of some businesses. The new order will apply to “red-alert counties” and will cover indoor locations that are not residences and outdoor places where social distancing isn’t possible from others outside of their families, according to tweets from DeWine.
“What's going on in these counties is very frightening. It should frighten the people of those counties,” DeWine said during a briefing Tuesday. “But the good news is, we can fight back.”
DeWine is the latest Republican governor to implement new rules in an attempt to stem the number of infections that have been rising throughout the summer. The move, like several he made at the onset of the pandemic, is unlikely to win him many friends in his own party.
Before DeWine announced the mask decision Tuesday, the local GOP party leader in one of the reddest counties in Ohio wasn’t seeing much love for the state’s Republican governor during the coronavirus pandemic.
After months of public health restrictions in the state, Mercer County Republican Party chairman Rick Delzeith couldn’t say with certainty himself that he’d support DeWine if a GOP primary challenger emerged to run against him in the future.
“If you would have asked me two years ago, I would have said, yeah definitely DeWine,” Delzeith said. “But now I'm saying, well, it depends who's on the ticket.”
Delzeith is among those in the Ohio Republican ranks who have taken issue with DeWine during the pandemic, providing a stark counter to a governor who was widely praised for slowing the spread of coronavirus through a series of aggressive measures that shuttered the state as the virus spread across the country.
“Some people are just downright angry,” Delzeith said.
The tension is a familiar one for DeWine. But before the focused mask mandate was announced, the 73-year-old governor, who’s served in a variety of elected offices in Ohio for decades, was already finding himself further caught between a wing of the GOP that’s unhappy with his public health approach and worry from across the aisle that he’s no longer being as aggressive with the virus as he was in the spring.
“Texas and Florida (and Arizona) are a case study of what happened if you never took it seriously," Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper told The Daily Beast last week. “Ohio, I'm afraid, I hope I'm wrong but I'm afraid, is becoming a case study of actually if you took it seriously but then you let off on the gas, bad things still happen. And you become more like the states with major problems than the states that never stopped taking it seriously.”
A Quinnipiac poll released late last month found DeWine with a 75 percent approval rating in the state, but that hasn’t stopped some in the Ohio GOP from calling him out over having a more heavy hand during the pandemic than his Republican counterparts in other states.
Despite the high approval rating, one DeWine critic during the pandemic, GOP state Rep. John Becker, was emphatic to The Daily Beast that he did not plan to vote for DeWine in the future. The Republican stalwart won the governor’s office in 2018 and wouldn’t be on the ballot again until 2022 if he decides to run for another term.
"Things could always change, but the way I feel now I don't see myself voting for Mike DeWine for any office under any circumstances ever again," Becker said. “...He has failed as a governor.”
The criticisms from the GOP party have been building in recent months. In early May, as states began to reopen some Republicans criticisms of DeWine were already mounting, with one GOP county leader at the time telling The Daily Beast that his fellow Republican had “violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence,” with his coronavirus restrictions.
Since then, Ohio has reopened like many other states. But before Tuesday’s mask order for some counties, DeWine had continued to try and play to both sides during the fraught political climate created by the pandemic as the coronavirus resurges amid loosened restrictions nationwide. In the last week alone, major cities in Ohio, including Dayton, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, had announced masks requirements.
“The spike in coronavirus cases across the City of Cleveland warrants the mandated use of masks,” Mayor Frank Jackson said in a statement last week announcing the move.
DeWine publicly welcomed the moves and applauded Cleveland on Twitter saying, “this is the right move.” But requirements from his own administration didn’t come until days later.
In a late May letter authored in part by Delzeith, and first reported on by The Cincinnati Enquirer, a group of Republican county groups signed on to take DeWine to task for his handling of the pandemic. “You have disappointed your party faithful,” the counties wrote, decrying DeWine’s “big government approach,” to the public health crisis.
“Here in Mercer County, the only people that are in favor of all of these orders are Democrats and (the local hospital),” Delzeith later told The Daily Beast.
But other party mainstays in the state have avoided condemning DeWine like some of their fellow Republicans have been so willing to do.
“He’s taken leadership in the situation but hasn’t tried to become a dictator or excessively control the daily lives of people,” said Rob Hovis, the chairman of the Holmes County Republican Party.
That sentiment from some in the party hasn’t stopped critics from picking DeWine apart. One conservative firebrand in the Ohio House, state Rep. Nino Vitale, even went as far over the Fourth of July weekend to mock DeWine for wearing a mask.
“It is interesting how one person’s (DeWine’s) symbol of freedom is a symbol of oppression and government control by others,” he posted on his Facebook page, before adding the hashtags “#MasksDoHarm #MasksDoNotWork.”
Despite the vocal criticism from some Republicans, others continue to be kinder to DeWine before Tuesday’s mask announcement, including Phil Plummer, the Republican county chairman in Montgomery County and a state representative.
It would be tough to be in DeWine’s shoes, he said Monday, though he could understand the frustrations from some fellow Republicans.
“We shouldn't be airing out our dirty laundry publicly,” Plummer said.