A man protesting Ohio’s health orders at the state Capitol on May 1. Gov. Mike DeWine later repealed most of them only to start reimposing orders on Tuesday as coronavirus cases continued to surge. Capital Journal photo by Marty Schladen

By Jake Zuckerman and Ohio Capital Journal

Ohioans were living with the coronavirus for about two months before GOP lawmakers initiated what would be a nearly yearlong effort to squash the state health department’s ability to issue public health orders.

The earliest version of the idea was to limit any order issued by the Ohio Department of Health to a two-week window. After that, a small panel of lawmakers would need to approve the order for it to stay in effect any further.

“We are clearly on the downside of the curve, there is no longer a risk of overwhelming the health care system,” said now-former Rep. John Becker to the House State and Local Government Committee, setting one of the first legislative attacks on the health department in motion via Senate Bill 1.

“I’m not sure there ever was, but that argument did make sense to me initially.”

Ten months, three gubernatorial vetoes, and more than 520,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 later, little has changed. The Senate passed a similar version of the idea last month on a party-line vote.

A review of emails obtained by public records requests, committee hearings, interviews and contemporaneous media reports highlight just how absent public health was from efforts to wrest power from the health department during a pandemic.

In several instances, abortion politics, coronavirus infections among lawmakers, and overly rosy assessments of the pandemic from Republican leaders played a larger role in the legislation than the coronavirus itself.

SB 1 died an unusual death last May when every state Senator — even the bill’s sponsors — voted it down. Its supporters gave varying explanations from the Senate floor. They said it didn’t have an emergency clause, meaning it wouldn’t take effect for 90 days; and it was clumsily drafted.

Then-Senate President Senate President Larry Obhof, one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, later told constituents that Senators killed the bill, in part, because it could have expanded women’s access to abortion.

“A prominent Right to Life organization pointed out that the language, as written, could allow lawsuits challenging health orders that regulate or close abortion clinics,” he said in an email obtained in a public records request.

“Thus, the language could have been used to protect abortion clinics.”

The concern came from a letter the Greater Columbus Right to Life sent to lawmakers. Ohio Right to Life, which operates independently of the Columbus organization, disagreed, according to its director, Michael Gonidakis. However, he tried to stay out of it.

“We had no desire to be involved in that debate,” he said in a recent interview.

Sen. Tim Schaffer, R-Lancaster, later wrote on Facebook that the bill would have limited the state’s ability to “shut down illegal abortion clinics.” Then-Speaker of the House Larry Householder, R-Glenford, prior to being indicted in an alleged racketeering scheme, commented on the post. He told the senator to “grow a pair” and called his rationale “bullshit.”

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