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Jefferson County health board puts Nutcracker Village, Franciscan Square ice rink on notice

STEUBENVILLE — Concerned with rising coronavirus case counts in Jefferson County, the Jefferson County Board of Health voted Thursday to give the operators of Nutcracker Village and the Franciscan Square ice rink five days to comply with state COVID-19 guidelines or shut down.

The board also will notify schools to limit attendance at winter sporting events to two parents per playing athlete, and all venues must be cleared between events.

Compliance monitors would be required on site to ensure guidelines are being followed.

The decisions came during an emergency board meeting to discuss the county’s coronavirus response, capping a more than hour-long discussion of what staff members described as flagrant violations of the governor’s COVID-19 protocols and differing interpretations of the board’s power to enforce them.

Director of Nursing Hannah Piko told the board merely encouraging people to wear masks, practice social distancing and limit gatherings to 10 people doesn’t seem to be working.

Piko said in November, the health department staff had logged 645 positive COVID-19 cases and monitored 90 people they’d come in contact with. Nursing home residents and university students weren’t included in that count.

Just three days into December, she said they’ve already entered 200 new cases into their system but they’re only monitoring 29 contacts “due to the fact that we are barely keeping up with contacting all of the other positives we receive.”

As of Thursday, Jefferson County has 961 active coronavirus cases with 16 deaths. Another 736 people are presumed recovered. Ten of those deaths have occurred since Nov. 12.

“To see 50 or 60 cases a day is normal now,” Piko said, adding, “If you pay attention to the news, you know hospitals are being overrun — we are running out of space for our regular patients, not just our COVID patients.”

She also pointed out Jefferson County ranks sixth in the state in terms of occurrence rate, and both the Today show and the New York Times reported the Ohio Valley has the third highest positivity rate in the nation.

“I truly think it is time to do more than just make suggestions to our community,” she said. “We need to take action.”

Initially, Piko suggested closing schools, but board members and advisors suggested that might be counter-productive, since kids would have more time to socialize.

But Dr. Patrick Macedonia, a board member, said it should be left to school administrators to decide if closing is warranted.

“I respect your concerns about schools,” Macedonia said. “But the CDC director said schools should not be closed because they’re a safe place for children. Nothing has been shown from a health standpoint to show that closing schools has been beneficial at all.”

“That’s fine if schools are not the way you want to go, but we have to do something,” Piko pleaded.

Fiscal, Grants and Public Information Officer Kelly Wilson said both Nutcracker Village and the ice rink had violated protocol by allowing large numbers of people, many of them unmasked, to congregate.

“Somebody’s got to do something,” she said. “Get rid of things happening where you know community spread is occurring. I just think we have to do something. We’re taking a beating — I don’t think you realize the beating we’re taking and you’re taking.

“If you’re not on social media, you’re not seeing it.”

Royal Mayo, a community activist and COVID-19 recoveree, said bringing too many people together from too many places is a recipe for disaster.

“People are going to get sick and people are going to die, that’s how it works,” Mayo said, adding, “We’ve got to stop talking about education, people already know what they should be doing. We’ve got to start talking about enforcement — that’s what’s going to get this under control.”

Macedonia, though, insisted the board “needs evidence of a problem” before trying to fix it. “We can’t just assume this place or that place” is causing it, he said.

“We’ve had enough witnesses say there are violations occurring,” board member Jean Phillippe Rigaud countered. “I feel we need to move forward and at least take some type of action.”

Initially, he moved to issue shut down orders for both Nutcracker Village and the skating rink, but Macedonia said at the very least the department should issue a warning first.

“I think we have to give them an opportunity to correct the deficiency and if they don’t, then they’d be closed,” he said.

The board voted 3-1, with Macedonia dissenting, to issue notices to Nutcracker Village and the skating rink. Board members voted 4-0 to change the winter sports policy for sport teams.

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