In a special address from the Ohio Statehouse, Gov. Mike DeWine urged all Ohioans to wear face masks no matter where in the state they live, but declined to issue any new statewide requirements.
"Tonight, I'm asking each of you to take action now," DeWine said Wednesday. "To sacrifice now so that our kids can be in school this fall. So they can at least have a chance to play sports. So businesses can remain open. So that Ohioans can continue earning a living, a paycheck, and support their families."
Speaking alone from inside the governor's office, DeWine re-emphasized a point he's been making for months: Face masks are widely accepted by health professionals and businesses as an effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19.
"Wear a mask every time you go out in public," he urged.
During Wednesday's address, however, DeWine declined to order any additional health requirements or issue a statewide face mask mandate, as more than 20 other states have already done.
"That discussion is for another time," he said.
So far, DeWine has targeted 12 counties with health orders requiring face coverings in public, in areas where the spread of COVID-19 is most extreme. But for the remaining of the state's 88 counties, masks remain optional.
More areas may be added to the list on Thursday, when DeWine is expected to update the state's Public Health Advisory System, which rates individual counties on the severity of its outbreak.
Meanwhile, many large businesses - most recently Kroger, Walmart and Sam's Club - announced in recent days that masks will be required for customers inside their stores.
DeWine repeatedly praised Ohioans for their actions early on in the pandemic, which he says helped buy critical time for the state's health care system to build hospital capacity, obtain PPE and other supplies, and bulk up testing. He praised residents for taking a "collective leap of faith in a battle against an invisible enemy."
Ohio was the first state in the nation to shutter schools and move to entirely online learning in the spring. With the help of former Health Department director Amy Acton, DeWine also helped lead the way in shutting down restaurants and other businesses.
By mid-May, DeWine started to reopen Ohio's economy, with outdoor dining followed soon by indoor dining, bars, movie theatres, salons, zoos, offices and more. All those businesses have new safety restrictions in place, but in recent weeks, COVID-19 cases started trending upward again.
Last month, when DeWine was asked if the state could once again close businesses if cases spiked, he responded, "We certainly are looking at that, but we hope not to face that choice."
So far, the governor has refrained from reversing or slowing his economic reopening plan. But DeWine acknowledged that the state is losing ground in its once-promising fight against the coronavirus.
"Once things start moving downhill, they move very quickly," he warned. "And it's so very, very hard then to turn things back around."
Ohio has reported at least 1,000 new COVID-19 cases every day for the past week, compared to about half that number just three weeks ago. DeWine called that reversal of progress "disturbing."
Since July 5, the number of hospitalized COVID patients has increased every day, from 730 to 1,027. And on Wednesday, the Department of Health reported the highest single-day increases in hospitalizations and ICU admissions in months, with 160 new hospitalizations and 36 new ICU admissions in just the last day.
DeWine says the state is now approaching the same number of hospitalizations as it did during the pandemic's first peak in March and April. Even more concerning, the number of deaths from COVID-19 hit 3,075 on Wednesday.
"If all of us do not take immediate action to slow this virus down, the tragedy that we see on our television screens every day in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California may well be our reality in just a matter of weeks," DeWine says.
Beyond wearing masks, DeWine also said many people have let their guard down when it comes to social distancing. He questioned whether attending events like reunions, cookouts and even playdates is "worth it."
"This virus will end. It will end," DeWine said. "And don't we all want to be around when it does?"
The state's ban on mass gatherings of more than 10 people remains in place. However, like the face mask mandates, enforcement falls to the state or local health departments, rather than law enforcement agencies, many of which say they refuse to enforce health orders.
The Ohio legislature passed a bill recently that would reduce fines and ban criminal penalties for violating public health orders. DeWine has promised to veto it, calling the proposal "a tragic mistake."