Upset By Politics Driving COVID-19 Policy, Ohioans Say They Want Fact-Based Leadership
Justin Dennis, Mahoning Matters for Your Voice Ohio
They came from all corners of Ohio, all walks of life, and they’re all trying to cope with the coronavirus pandemic in many of the same ways — more face-time with family; experimenting in the kitchen; finally cleaning out that old, junked garage.
They shared many of the same concerns about the vast unknown that still lies ahead for Ohioans and the nation as a whole, while taking heart in the small gestures of everyday humanity that now shine brighter along that darkened horizon.
Your Voice Ohio, a journalism collaborative of more than 50 news outlets across the state, brought those more than two-dozen Ohioans together for a series of virtual roundtable discussions hosted in early August. The topic was COVID-19 because that’s what Ohioans said in a statewide poll in July is by far their biggest concern. The media collaborative wanted to know how the pandemic was affecting their lives, how they’re coping and how they envision the path ahead.
It wasn’t like your Facebook feed. These Ohioans of various ages, backgrounds and ethnicities seemed to agree on more than they disagreed. They said they want to cut through the partisan fog of war, switch off TV news, seek cold, hard facts — rather than opinion — about the nature of the pandemic and meet on middle ground to figure it all out together.
“Regardless of who you support, this isn’t a game,” said Adam Seal, a 30-something from Lake County whose mother has a high COVID-19 risk and whose small, family-run HVAC company is teetering on the brink.
“I feel like this is a game, [all] for show. People’s lives are on the line here,” he said. “We hear a lot of opinions. We need a unified message. We need to be listening to experts. Our governments need to be working together. We need to be on the same page.”
As in the Great Recession more than a decade ago, these Ohioans said they’re grappling with a withered economy and widespread unemployment; choosing which monthly bills to pay and which to put off; balancing on the high-wire, not knowing what’s below to catch their fall.
They feel their voices are drowned out by the churning storm of this presidential election year, with its shock-and-awe narratives seized by red and blue flags. Calls to action are cut off by the burgeoning distrust of dire projections by the best medical science, and they’re further confused by ongoing revisions to our best knowledge of a viral pandemic the likes of which have not been seen in a century.
Meanwhile, more than 100,000 Ohioans have been infected and 4,000 have died.
What was on the Your Voice Ohio participants’ minds could be distilled to a pervading sense of uncertainty — whether their businesses and homes can weather this storm; whether they’ll remain healthy; whether it’s too risky to hug their grandchildren; whether they’ll ever get their lives back. And to whom can they turn for answers and a clear direction?
Help Network of Northeast Ohio — a regional agency that connects 2-1-1 callers with the social services they need and also operates a suicide and crisis hotline — hasn’t been receiving many more calls than it did before the pandemic began, said CEO Vince Brancaccio. But in the past several months the most common calls for help — typically seeking housing or food — have become less frequent than the calls from Ohioans simply looking for reassurance; someone to tell them everything’s going to be OK.
“Those reassurance calls are more for people who are calling who are anxious, depressed, worried, scared of what’s going to happen,” Brancaccio said. “It’s not that they need information, per se. They’re not necessarily suicidal or in crisis. They just need someone to talk to to provide reassurance.”
Participants told us there’s been little that’s felt reassuring about the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Many participants in each of the five regional sessions said they feel Americans aren’t following the same pandemic playbook. They feel officials should be leading from the top down with fact-based policy backed by the best medical science — and there should be no partisan squabbling.
“I just want whomever is in charge to take charge. I’m proud to be an American, but I even questioned that as I watched some countries make tough decisions,” said Joey Saporito of Cincinnati. “I travel a lot. Other countries don’t want us because we’ve taken control of [the pandemic] so poorly.”
JoEllen Hayes, who lives with her veterinarian husband on a 70-acre farm between Cambridge and New Concord, said Ohio’s pandemic response was “superb” under former Ohio Department of Health director Dr. Amy Acton. But it’s become “fractured.” She’s “frustrated and heartbroken” that some Ohioans regard the pandemic as a “hoax.”
“Everybody needs to get on the same page,” said Carol Dillon, a cashier living in Zanesville, who joined Hayes and others in southeast Ohio’s session.
“You don’t know who to believe. Some are saying it’s no worse than the flu,” so messaging about the dangers needs to be clear and consistent from the top of the command chain down, she said.
The first U.S. case of coronavirus transmission from person-to-person was reported Jan. 30. In February and March, both Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams publicly recommended against the use of surgical or N95 masks by the general public.
Though at the time, Fauci said his recommendation was out of concern for U.S. healthcare workers who were facing a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment, Adams asserted masks were not effective in preventing virus spread. Adams later switched his stance after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending masks in April, based on new findings.
President Donald Trump said at the time: “You can do it — you don’t have to do it. It’s only a recommendation. … I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”
The dissonance was obvious to Your Voice Ohio participants, many of whom spent part of their weekday afternoons tuning into DeWine’s regular addresses.
“If your perspective has changed, acknowledge the shift. That’s part of being a leader. And if not, maybe you’re not a leader,” said Cecelia McFadden of northeast Ohio. “I’d like to see some integrity. I’d like to see a plan. I work in systems, so there are always plans. That’s what I don’t see.”
Ken Yuchasz, a middle school teacher in Somerset, used to believe coronavirus was a flu. Since then, his school closed and he’s installed a decontamination station at the back of his house to keep the medically vulnerable members of his family safe.
He showed his students an educational video on the 1918 Spanish flu. Public sentiment on today’s pandemic is divided, as it was 100 years ago, he said.
“Nowadays, we don’t feel we have a common enemy,” Yuchasz said.
Michael Rankin of Dover called the initial pandemic response “haphazard,” and said he expected Americans “ought to have it together by now.”
“We ought to have a unified front, and there just doesn’t seem to be a real coherent plan across the nation.” he said. “Gov. [Mike] DeWine did a great job and state leadership did a great job. Nationally, we haven’t stepped up and gotten on-board.”
Ohio was one of the first states to act aggressively by closing schools and non-essential businesses. Today, the state ranks 22nd in the country with a death rate of about 33 per 100,000 people, far better than neighbors Michigan, Pennsylvania and Indiana and lower than the national rate of 49 per 100,000.
DeWine, during an Aug. 20 briefing on the state’s coronavirus response, said he doesn’t expect pandemic deniers to listen to him — rather, the medical experts.
“The mask order is a prime example. I understand the controversy with masks, but if you talk to the best experts you can find … the jury’s returned. There’s no dispute. Masks are very important.
“I think it is a prudent, conservative approach to do some sacrifice wearing a mask so that you can have more freedom,” DeWine said. “To me, that is the ultimate conservative approach. It is an approach that expands liberty, an approach that expands freedom.”
Though DeWine has been consistent on the importance of masks, he was restrained in using executive powers to enforce them.
Ohio has averaged about 1,073 new cases per day from July 23, when the statewide mask mandate took effect, to Aug. 23. The state averaged 1,059 new cases per day for the month prior to the mandate.
However, the number of coronavirus tests administered each day in the state continues to climb. From July 21 to Aug. 21, an average 22,338 people were tested per day. When the mask mandate took effect July 23, the 7-day moving average of positive tests was 6.4 percent. As of Aug. 21, it had sunk to 4 percent.
Connecticut, whose mask mandate has remained in effect since April 20, averaged 294 new cases per day after the mandate took effect. Before then — the state’s earliest reported data are dated March 24 — it averaged 711 new cases per day.
As Ohio’s nonessential spaces began to reopen in late April and early May, DeWine mandated masks for employees and returning customers — but, the very next day, downgraded the order to simply a recommendation for those customers.
Acton, the former ODH director who amassed celebrity as a fixture of the state’s afternoon briefings, resigned in mid-June amid political salvos including anti-Semitic remarks — Acton is Jewish — and anti-lockdown demonstrations outside her home. She left the state’s employ entirely in early August.
“People in America don’t like ‘no,’” said Yvette Kelly-Fields of southwest Ohio. “Most people don’t understand freedom isn’t free. … When seat belts were first mandated, people fought against it.”
Another in Kelly-Fields’ regional group said she felt pandemic directives shouldn’t be up for debate.
“There isn’t a place for politicizing a health crisis. There is no perspective that should be different,” said the Dayton-area woman who’s a Type I diabetic and at greater risk from COVID-19 and has since scuttled schooling and career plans.
When DeWine’s administration unveiled the Ohio Public Health Advisory System in late June, public mask-wearing was mandated in counties that met enough indicators of virus spread to be placed in the “red” alert phase. Less than a month later, DeWine again mandated masks statewide.
THE MEDIA’S EFFECT
Sherina Ohanian does international market research in about a dozen other countries from her home near Toledo — as her company transitioned to fully remote work — and the effects of the pandemic have become part of that work.
Ohanian feels American media coverage of the pandemic is often self-centered, but her work offers her some global perspective. She wonders why politics doesn’t factor into other countries’ pandemic response.
“People in Italy were on lockdown — they knew it was part of what they needed to do,” Ohanian said. “Talking to people in the U.S., it’s just such a differing point of view. I feel like it’s government-related or it’s political, or everyone’s view is some side of the political arena.”
But Ohanian doesn’t sense the same deep-seated distrust of government from her counterparts in, say, Singapore or India.
“It’s very odd when you try to explain to people this is for our safety and this is what we need and they say it’s a political thing,” she said. “People in other countries … they’re not happy with [health restrictions]; they’re not quite comfortable with it. But they also know it’s for the greater good.”
Tom Fryman, a retired marketing researcher in the Greater Columbus area, said the relentless news cycle isn’t helping — rather, it’s stoking division for viewership, making common ground harder to find.
The pandemic has brought out “extremes in people’s personalities,” he said.
“It has gotten so toxic, such disagreement,” Fryman later added. “There is little cooperation. It seems like way too much posturing. It’s all about posturing.
“Politics has been ugly for a real long time. Of course, the media is part of that because they’re telling the story. We want to get back to normal.”
To Fryman, the news media has split into “teams.” Once upon a time, Walter Cronkite was on the air and “no one knew what his politics were,” he said.
Many other participants elsewhere in the state agreed the media muddies issues surrounding the pandemic more often than it clarifies. Many said they’ve since tuned out — it’s all just too stressful.
“Can anyone name a TV or radio station that is really giving you the news? Everyone is so tired of watching the news,” Ohanian said. “There’s no middle ground. It’s different sides of the same story. Society is getting divided by what we see and read.”
Don Bayma, of Trumbull County, said there must be a reason why cases continue to rise in the U.S. while other countries are better containing outbreaks.
He suspects Americans aren’t getting the full story.
“We need honesty. Tell us the truth,” said Bayma. “If you listen to the conservative news, you’re hearing one viewpoint. If you’re listening to the liberal news, you’re hearing another.
“We’ve got to get out of this thing and we need to be told the honest truth.”
‘PRAY AND GIVE IT TO GOD’
Tawana Hill’s state unemployment claims are part of the 6 percent that are still pending across Ohio.
The Cleveland-area single mother of four works as a teacher’s assistant in a public school district and was out of work when Ohio schools closed in mid-March. She’s been waiting on unemployment benefits since May.
Hill’s now back working with her special education students. But when she spoke with Your Voice Ohio in early August, she was two months behind on rent, balancing which bills she’d pay or delay each month and desperately awaiting a second round of federal stimulus that Congress vigorously debated, but never delivered.
The $600 additional unemployment payments included in the CARES Act expired on July 31, along with the federal moratorium on evictions. Ohio has not established its own eviction moratorium.
Hill considered seeking a second income, but she worries another job won’t allow her to work remotely — which is how her school district is starting the academic year — and the risk of contracting coronavirus is too great. She’s a diabetic. She and some of her children are asthmatic.
“It’s a risk to go out there,” she said.
Ohioans have filed more than 1.6 million initial unemployment claims in the past 22 weeks — more than in the last four years combined, said Ohio Department of Job and Family Services spokesperson Bret Crow. The week following the statewide shutdown on March 15, there were more than 189,000 new claims from the prior week.
Early on some Ohioans, Hill included, reportedly waited hours on-hold to sort out their claims.
“Every state’s system was overwhelmed at first because of the historic surge in unemployment,” Crow said. “In previous recessions, the claims number built steadily over time.
“During the 2008 recession, our highest weekly initial claim total was 35,727 claims in December. We more than doubled that highest weekly total in just one day in late March.”
The deluge of claims went to an already outdated system built in 2004 whose mainframe was coded in part using a programming language from before the 1980s — it “wasn’t designed to handle the crush of claims since March,” Crow said.
ODJFS had already begun upgrading the system in 2019, but those upgrades won’t be calibrated until at least 2021.
ODJFS has since bolstered staff and call center availability, added automated systems and it can now take claims by text message.
As of Aug. 21, more than 785,000 Ohioans have received nearly $6.1 billion in traditional unemployment benefits. ODJFS has processed 94 percent of the new claims since the onset of coronavirus. The remaining 6 percent — including Hill’s claims — represent the most complex claims, which need to be verified by staff.
The state’s pandemic unemployment assistance program, designed as the “catch-all” for those otherwise ineligible for traditional unemployment compensation, offers 39 weeks of benefits for the self-employed, part-time workers or those whose work situations have otherwise been impacted by the pandemic. So far, it’s given more than 532,000 Ohioans about $5.2 billion.
Hill doesn’t qualify for that, since she qualifies for traditional unemployment compensation. And because she hasn’t received those traditional state benefits, she also hasn’t received the additional $600 weekly payment through the CARES Act — though if she did, both would be retroactive to the date she became eligible.
Hill said she’s still a month behind on her internet bill. In March, Spectrum began offering free broadband plans to households with K-12 students — but by the time she heard about it, the program had already been discontinued, she said. Similarly, her phone provider offered a $25 a month plan — but only for 60 days.
“And here we are six months into the pandemic,” Hill said.
She said she’s thankful for SNAP benefits, which have been “helping put food on the table.” Calls to 2-1-1 pointed her toward food banks. She’s already connected with a local rent relief program and has an appointment set with the Home Energy Assistance Program to bring her utilities down.
Hill said her every dollar is accounted for. The rest is up to God.
“Keep your head up and we’ll get through this,” she wanted readers to know. “Pray and give it to God. That’s basically what I’ve been doing.”
The Republican-led U.S. Senate and Democrat-led House failed to reach deals on either the House’s HEROES Act or the Senate’s HEALS Act, both of which would have mailed out a second stimulus check. The Senate broke until after Labor Day. The House was recalled, but to act on emergency funding for the U.S. Postal Service on Aug. 22.
“A plan is not ‘we’ll decide when we get back from break if you’re going to get a stimulus check,’” McFadden said hotly.
Trump, through an executive order signed after Congress recessed without a stimulus deal, offered states federal emergency dollars to keep at least $300 in additional unemployment benefits flowing. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Aug. 26 it approved Ohio for that funding and that it would work with DeWine on a system to funnel it to jobless Ohioans.
The funding totals $717 million, Crow said. Any Ohioan receiving at least $100 in unemployment benefits and whose jobs have been disrupted by the pandemic would receive the additional $300 weekly payment, retroactive to Aug. 1, when the former payment expired.
“Most” Ohioans who received that previous additional payment would be eligible for the new one, Crow said. Ohioans don’t need to apply for the benefit; it will be added to their standard unemployment compensation for the eligible period, he said.
The payments may start going out in mid to late September, DeWine announced the prior week. The additional payments will end once the total $44 billion in FEMA disaster relief funding has been exhausted or once the program expires Dec. 6, according to Trump’s order, Crow said.
States could opt to pitch in an additional $100. Those that didn’t would instead need to prove they’re investing that money into their unemployment systems. Ohio decided it couldn’t afford the extra $100. Reporters, during an Aug. 20 coronavirus briefing, asked DeWine why the state is unable while Kentucky and West Virginia plan to draw the match from their coronavirus relief funds.
“Our analysis shows that we simply do not have the money to do it,” DeWine said. “So I’m not sure, frankly, how they’re going to pull that off, but I’m always open to learning.”
DeWine spokesperson Dan Tierney said that analysis looked at the total number of eligible unemployed Ohioans and how far back their eligibility goes — at most, up until the extra payment’s expiration on Aug. 1.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in July there were about 105,900 unemployed Kentuckians and 74,500 unemployed West Virginians, compared to 502,600 unemployed Ohioans.
Ohio’s unemployment rate was at 8.9 percent in July; compared to 10.2 percent for the nation, 9.9 percent in West Virginia and 5.7 percent in Kentucky.
DeWine, speaking earlier this month to CNN, called the president’s order a “blunt instrument,” though he said it offers a stop-gap until a congressional deal can be struck.
“What really needs to happen is Congress needs to get back in [session] and negotiate,” the governor said. “I’m confident Congress can do something.”
Though Ohio added 62,700 jobs in July, mostly at private service providers, it’s still short 495,100 jobs from July 2019.
Back in northeast Ohio, Brancaccio wonders if this is just the “calm before the storm.” With the federal unemployment assistance in limbo and eviction proceedings back in play, he wonders if those calling Help Network for moral support may later call back desperate for services to help them get by.
Fryman said he finds the government’s need to balance safety over the economy frustrating — he’d rather people be allowed to live fulfilling lives.
“It devastates me to see businesses going under and people losing their jobs,” he said. “It tears me up to see that economic devastation.
“Maybe that’s too strong a word. Maybe it’s not too strong a word.”
Justin Dennis is a reporter for Mahoning Matters, an online news organization serving the Youngstown-Warren area. He can be emailed at email@example.com. He produced this story for Your Voice Ohio.
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About Your Voice Ohio: This is one in a series of stories on issues Ohioans say are most important in this election year. More than 50 news outlets are collaborating in the project under the umbrella of Your Voice Ohio, the nation’s largest sustained, statewide news media collaborative. In five years, Your Voice Ohio has brought more than 100 journalists together with more than 1,300 Ohioans for discussions on addiction, the economy and elections. The project is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and Facebook. The Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes designs and facilitates the dialogues. Retired Akron Beacon Journal managing editor Doug Oplinger directs the media work and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.