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Coronavirus restrictions spark heated debate at Jefferson County Board of Health meeting

CONCERNS RAISED — Jefferson County Board of Health’s Clark Crago voiced concern that continued restrictions on events like bingo and gun bashes could irreparably harm churches, fire departments and other groups that rely on the revenue they generate. (Photo by Linda Harris)

STEUBENVILLE — Jefferson County’s Board of Health proved Monday it’s not immune to the discord that has dominated the national conversation about coronavirus restrictions.

After a contentious 45-minute debate, board members voted 3-1, with one abstention, to allow Health Commissioner Nicole Balakos to approve requests that come in from county schools seeking variances to spacing requirements for sporting events.

The order, as written, caps attendance at 15 percent of seating capacity to a maximum of 1,500, but Balakos pointed out some smaller school venues may need to find creative ways to accommodate the families of players, coaches and others integral to the event.

Balakos told the board the Ohio Department of Health ultimately will decide what variances are granted, but they won’t consider any that the local boards haven’t first vetted and approved.

“(Requests) have to be approved by the local health department and ODOH,” Balakos said. “The local board must have approved it or ODH will not accept it.”

Balakos said schools will have to submit documentation justifying why they need a variance, and how their plan would achieve the guidance spelled out in the governor’s order. That means they’ll have to meet social distancing guidelines and other requirements.

“We can’t approve them if they don’t achieve the minimum requirements, six-foot social distancing,” she said. “Once we’re comfortable, we’ll forward it to ODH for review. They will not accept it unless the local health department (signs off).”

But the discussion strayed into areas that, so far at least, the governor and ODH have not specifically addressed, such as entertainment.

Board members at the June meeting passed a motion severely limiting staff input in event planning, leading to a flood of events including concerts, 5K races and car shows that didn’t necessarily adhere to social distancing and mask recommendations.

“Back in June, we talked about orders,” Dr. Patrick Macedonia, a board member, said. “If it’s not in an order, we were not going to say yes or no. Now we have an order (governing school sports). But those (events) back in June, there were no orders … those were phone discussions.”

“Back then, you said even if it was in an order we were not supposed to approve (events),” Balakos replied.

“Today, if they can follow the order the board is behind them,” Macedonia replied. “That’s why we had the discussion back in June — there’s really no reason to change that motion.”

But Health Board President Terry Bell disagreed, asking for approval of a motion that going forward, “any directives that come from the state, we will follow to the letter. That will keep us out of trouble.”

Bell said with schools opening, “there’s going to be more people out and about. I believe we should follow the directives and orders from ODH and the governor.”

Macedonia voiced concern that overly strict regulations will decimate the local economy.

“Doing that, there’s going to be a lot of things close down in Jefferson County,” board member Clark Crago agreed. “Churches throughout the county are relying on bingo, that would be stopped. Some fire departments are relying on gun bashes, that would be stopped. They need that money to operate.”

Crago questioned the logic behind guidelines that allow Ohioans to have weddings with no masks, “but they’re going to tell groups they can’t have bingo?”

“What’s that going to do to your community when you start enforcing it?” he continued. “If we have to follow the rules, why aren’t they down here enforcing them?”

Balakos, though, pointed out there are serious ramifications for violating the state directives. She said ODH had already punished one community, “they quit giving them grants, pulled their food service program because they weren’t following the rules. Now they have no health department.”

“Just let us do our job,” she said. “We’re supposed to give yeses or nos, that’s what a local health department is supposed to do. And we need the board to back us up when we’re following ODH guidelines. We get guidance from the governor and ODH, we know what we’re supposed to do. We know what the gray area is, we know how to help people do things they need to do.”

“When decisions are given, there are hard consequences,” Macedonia said, pointing out “every day health boards are getting sued.”

“Some of it doesn’t make sense,” he added. “They tell you to do things, but there’s no science behind it…”

“Where in the Ohio Revised Code does it say you should ignore the governor’s orders?” Balakos replied.

Macedonia cast the lone dissenting vote and Crago abstained.

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