Gov. Mike DeWine has announced that the mandate on face masks in public will be extended statewide, beginning Thursday at 6 p.m.
"The evidence is just abundantly clear," DeWine said at a press conference Wednesday. "As I said, the jury is back, the verdict is in, masks work."
Ohio joins dozens of other states in implementing face mask requirements in response to increasing cases of COVID-19. Ohio's neighbor Indiana also announced a mask mandate Wednesday.
Under the public health order, people must wear masks in any indoor location other than a residence. It also applies to people who are outdoors and unable to consistently maintain six feet of distance, and while waiting for and riding public transportation or ride shares.
There are exceptions for children under 10 years old, and those with physical and developmental disabilities. People who are actively exercising or playing sports, are officiating religious services, are involved in public safety, or eating and drinking are also excluded.
"I would also urge all my fellow citizens to not be judgmental," DeWine said. "If someone is in a store and they do not have a mask now, we should assume they have some medical problem. We should assume there is some very legitimate reason why they cannot wear a mask."
While many Ohio cities – including Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Dayton – and several counties have passed local requirements for face coverings, DeWine has long resisted extending them across the state. Many of the governor's fellow Republicans, from the Ohio Statehouse up to the White House, oppose face masks, and local law enforcement have generally refused to enforce them.
Instead, DeWine has taken a more targeted approach, issuing mask orders for those counties listed as level three public emergencies or above under the Public Health Advisory System. That indicates areas where the spread of COVID-19 is e
Currently, 19 counties, covering 60% of Ohio's population, fall under those specifications: Delaware, Licking, Union, Richland, Allen, Athens, Lucas, Scioto, Wood, Cuyahoga, Lorain, Summit, Montgomery, Butler, Hamilton, Clermont, Pickaway, Fairfield, and Franklin.
More counties are likely to join them when the system is updated Thursday, DeWine says, but the goal of the statewide mandate is to preemptively help counties currently listed as level one or two.
"We know that the wearing of masks in those yellow counties and in those orange counties will in fact make a difference, and may help those counties not turn red," DeWine says.
Making sure people follow the mandates is another matter. The task of enforcement falls to the state and local health departments, rather than police or individual businesses, but compliance has been spotty, especially in more rural areas.
Violating the order is considered a misdemeanor, with penalties of up to 30 days behind bars and a $750 fine. DeWine has repeatedly said the intention is not to arrest people, but rather to make mask-wearing the norm.
Last Friday, DeWine vetoed a bill passed by the Ohio legislature that would have reduced fines and banned jail time for violating public health orders.
Ohio has seen its coronavirus numbers rapidly rise in recent weeks, as the state's stay-at-home order lapsed and businesses and entertainment facilities began reopening. The state Department of Health on Wednesday reported 1,527 new COVID-19 cases, the second-highest daily increase since the pandemic began. Hospitalizations have also gone up quickly, with 128 new hospitalizations and 19 more ICU admissions in the last day.
A total of 3,235 people have died from COVID-19 in Ohio.
DeWine said the data shows the rate of new coronavirus cases seems to be going down in those counties with mask requirements already in place.
"We cannot yet say we're at a plateau, but the rate of increase has certainly slowed," DeWine says.
With the opening of schools just weeks away, and districts announcing plans for balancing in-person and remote classes, DeWine says immediate action is needed.
"What we do between now and the next several weeks will determine what our fall is like," DeWine said. "We want our kids to go back to school, we want to see sports, we want to se a lot of different things."
On Wednesday, DeWine also issued a travel advisory to all people arriving from these states: Alabama, Mississippi, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Nevada, Idaho and Puerto Rico. People who recently visited or are coming to Ohio from there should quarantine for 14 days.
This story will be updated with more information as the story develops.