EATON — “I am declaring all Preble County businesses essential.”
Preble County Commissioners caught the eyes and ears of their constituents, the media, and surrounding counties when they called a special meeting on Friday, May 1, to voice their discontent with the orders of Governor Mike DeWine, Dr. Amy Acton and the continued closure of local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their goal: “reopening Preble County.”
Commission President Denise Robertson, who closed the meeting after making her declaration all businesses in Preble County are “essential,” opened it by noting, the state has declared certain businesses essential and other businesses not essential.
“I’m not sure how that is decided. Basically, I can go buy flowers for my mother’s grave at Walmart, but I can’t go to the flower shop because it’s closed and it’s deemed unessential,” she said.
“When the Governor and his advisor, the Health Director Dr. Acton, declared in March that we were going to do this to flatten the curve — flattening the curve, meaning weren’t going to overwhelm our healthcare system — when she did that in March, canceling our election, I was just, ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to make it to May 1st? How are we going to get there? What impact is this going to have on people?’” Robertson said. “But we all wanted to make sure our healthcare system was not overwhelmed. We all really wanted to make sure that the people that were going to be dealing directly with this had the PPE they needed.
“I don’t know that we all willingly did it, but we all did it because we knew it was a good thing to do.”
“So we wanted to discuss our plan for opening our county,” she said. “I don’t know what magical thing people think is going to happen on May 29th versus May 1st versus July 1st, but we’re going to be dealing with COVID for a while. We may never get a vaccine and people may not take it. Not everybody gets a flu shot. I don’t know how long the Governor or Dr. Acton or anyone expects us too remain in this shutdown economy — and it’s already going to have a very real financial impact to families, to small businesses, to your local government, because guess what? When our coffers get low we have to cut basic services.”
“We also took an oath to the constitution,” Robertson added. “We also took an oath to protect people’s rights. I view this as illegal and I don’t want to participate in any more illegalities.”
Commissioner Rodney Creech
Commissioner Creech said in recent weeks there was some activity in Logan County which “got my wheels spinning … I feel like we need to be upfront and be leaders in this. I think we need to look out for our small businesses and the people of our community.”
“I think the governor shutting down the state was a good decision in hindsight,” Creech said. “I didn’t agree with him at first when he did it. But hindsight, 20/20, I think it was a good call. I think him shutting the state down did help with the flattening of the curve. Now it’s time to get back to business”.
“We’re here today for our local businesses and we’re here for Preble County,” Creech continued. “I think we’re smart enough. I think we know how to operate safely. We have a lot of small business – Mom and Pop shops – whatever you want to call them, that I think are safer to visit than the large big box stores. Unfortunately, the Governor has decided to treat the whole state as a whole, and he’s forgotten about us rural counties that still have people with common sense.”
“I have full confidence in our local health department. There is nobody that knows this county better than our elected officials, our leaders — we know where we live. But we have somebody from the outside determining what we do. Who don’t even know who we are. They don’t know how we operate. I believe our local health department should have more responsibility,” he added.
Commissioner Chris Day
“I know a lot of you have small businesses and I know you can’t take another month without your business open,” Day addressed those who attended the meeting. “I feel for you. I think Preble Countians are smart enough, as everybody’s said, to deal with this. I think that for us to deal with this as a blanket approach is wrong. Our county cannot take this. Our economy cannot take this. We’ve got to get your small businesses up and running. I don’t know what the final answer is going to be, but we got to at least start making a push to get things opened back up.”
Preble County Public Health Commissioner Erik Balster
Preble County Public Health Commissioner Erik Balster agrees that over the past two weeks, the county has “really seen a fairly good plateau in the number of cases reported. At press time, the county had 28 confirmed and probably cases, five hospitalizations, and one death.
Balster attended the meeting last Friday to share the information included in the newest Stay Safe Ohio order which went into effect on May 1, and the steps laid out so far in the Responsible Restart Ohio plan.
“With this entire process, in most cases, we hear about the new changes right when everyone else does which doesn’t give us a lot of time to plan or even contact our local partners to say ‘hey, here’s what’s going on.’ That’s been a frustration voiced both to the director of health by several of the other health departments in the state, including ours,” said Balster, who had received the updated order late Thursday evening.
“There is a coherent plan to open businesses back up,” he said. “Is it ideal for every county? I know I’ve had discussions with each of the commissioners that the one size fits all approach may not be appropriate, and several counties have voiced that opinion.”
“I think Preble County has done a fantastic job, especially the citizens by adhering to this and taking it seriously,” Balster continued. “I don’t say that lightly. People are generally adhering to the six feet distance. You see a lot of people wearing masks. You see people just being conscientious of one another. I think that shows in two ways. Our numbers are down because we have a geographic advantage that we are kind of spread out. We’re independent people out here. Which I think, again, is a reason why we are having the success we are having.”
“Secondly, I do think the order, for all the frustrations many of us have had, has worked,” Balster said. “But with that said, the order wasn’t intended to shut everything down forever. It was intended to reduce the capacity of the hospitals … and doctors’ offices and it’s done that. The order that was issued last night, while it doesn’t make everyone happy, I think it does at least give hope.”
“We want to do everything we can to prevent spreading the disease,” Balster said. “We can’t necessarily rely on everyone else doing the right thing. We need the people to continue doing what they’re doing.”
“Our role here is to both interpret and enforce the stuff,” Balster said of Preble County Public Health, “But we want to work with every business that has a question to get up and running as soon as possible and as safely as possible.”
“We at this point, the health department, only have the power to follow the law and help people interpret the best they can and make the most informed decision they can,” he said. “We can’t make people wear masks. But ultimately people will make the best decision for themselves and their health.”
“We don’t have the manpower to go out and patrol businesses nor are we going to,” Balster said of enforcing the order. “We feel business owners are competent enough to understand the laws as they are and to operate what they feel is a safe manner. With regard to us enforcing the law, we’ll enforce it when we can and where we can, but again — we’re not out patrolling businesses. The last thing we want to do is fine anybody. We don’t want to bring people to court. We don’t want to put people in jail and we haven’t had to thus far. This county has done an excellent job of doing what they needed to do to protect the citizens.”
Several business owners were among the approximately 20 people in the commission chambers during the meeting. Others stood out in the courthouse lobby. Very few wore masks.
“I appreciate a lot of the comments I’ve heard today,” local business owner Beth Cox said. “I think we’re all pretty much on the same page. We see things coming out of Columbus that are arbitrary and inconsistent and they don’t really apply to the majority of us and that’s been a little bit frustrating. I think its really important at this point and time that we think about what happens next. This is going to happen again. There’s going to be another pandemic because this one worked so well. If the legislature made law that gave the governor and the health department complete control over the state as long as they has a state of emergency or whatever you call it — that has got to change.”
“The people have no recourse,” she added. “There is nowhere to turn to unless we all go up to Columbus and we go to the health department and we complain.”
Lewisburg Chamber of Commerce President Todd Appledorn said the issue is the uncertainty. “We’re never going to get the normalcy unless we try,” he said. “We need to try. It feels like to me — I’m not saying our local health department, our local health department is phenomenal — but it’s the people up there making the decisions at the statehouse are not listening to you guys. That’s the problem I have. We have great people and great minds, great actions but they’re not listening.”
“This has been very difficult for me,” Kathy Clapp said. “I am an American citizen. My father was a Marine. My grandfather was a Marine and my son is a Marine as well. I have the utmost respect for anyone that is an elected official. I don’t care who they are. Democrat. Republican. Liberal or Independent. I’ve been very blessed in my life as a business owner and right now, if I’m going to lose my business I want it to be by my hand. Not by someone telling me I can no longer have an income.”
“I’m here to tell you and anyone listening we have to get back to work,” Clapp said. “We can do it safely and we can do it orderly. Any small business that can open up should be able to do so. There should be no ramifications of someone making a dime.
“You can’t treat us like New York, because we’re not like New York.”
Klapp asked Sheriff Mike Simpson, who had earlier affirmed to a speaker he would pass complaints along to the PCPH department, if he would enforce the order and remove people from their businesses.
“My push-back would be that, I think, these businesses need to be allowed to open,” Simpson said. “They’re all smart people. Give them the criteria. They’ll figure it out. These people here (PC health officials), in my opinion, need to be calling the shots for Preble County. We’re not Columbus. We’re not Cleveland. Let Erik and his team figure it out with you and let’s get these businesses open.
“I’m not going to come and drag you out of your business. We’ve got to come up with a solution for Preble County.”
PC Chamber of Commerce
Preble County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Leslie Collins encouraged everyone to “err on the side of caution.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a response which was unforeseen, and for businesses, largely unplanned for,” Collins said. “ The closing of non-essential businesses coupled with shelter in place orders for most citizens has created a crisis environment for our economic well-being. For many, what is happening is similar to what we’ve seen in communities coping with large scale natural disasters.”
“We want all Preble County businesses, and their employees, to get back to work and start on the path to some sort of recovery,” she continued. “But we need to be careful we are not giving any information or direction which is contrary to the directives and recommendations issued by the CDC and Ohio Department of Health.”
“In speaking with one of our partners at the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation — those who deal daily with the safety aspects of operating a business — I realized reopening is just not going to be as easy as ‘opening the doors,’” Collins said.
“There might be new conditioning for employees needed, new training, new tools — it is just not going to be as easy as going back to work after taking a vacation. Businesses have to be able to make all their customers feel safe. Businesses who answer to licensing boards must also take that into consideration.”
“We don’t know what liability issues might look like,” Collins said.
“Every business must decide before opening its doors how it will be able to survive this crisis and remain in business,” Collins shared in the prepared statement. “We recently provided our members with an outline called ‘Project Rebound’ which gave suggestions on how to use the downtime the shutdown has forced to create their own plan for recovery and make themselves stronger in the long run.
“We hope businesses have used the time wisely, and we hope each continues to practice to their benefit the safety guidelines we’ve been given at both the federal and state levels — we want them to remain in business and survive this pandemic economically — but we encourage them to determine they are completely ready before making a rash decision to ‘flip the switch’ and open their doors before they are completely, and safely, ready to do so.”
At press time, Collins pointed out, under the Stay Safe Ohio order, retail establishments were already allowed to be open, as of May 1, to operate using curbside or other delivery, or by appointment for up to 10 people.
Preble County Public Health
After a weekend which included a social media firestorm regarding Preble County being “open for business,” and posts inferring no one was going to enforce the state order, Balster on Sunday, May 3, issued the following statement:
“On May 1, Preble County Public Health (PCPH) met with the Preble County Commissioners to discuss the current COVID-19 situation as it relates to the gradual reopening of business in Preble County. Discussion revolved around the Ohio Department of Health Director’s new Stay Safe Ohio Order as well as Governor DeWine’s plan to reopen Ohio businesses.
“In the days following this productive meeting, there has been great misrepresentation and rumors of what was discussed by various media outlets outside of our jurisdiction as well as through social media, which have reached cities and counties throughout Ohio.
“PCPH would like to reiterate that our department will be enforcing the Stay Safe Ohio order. It is the law and our job to do so. The Director’s order outlines a gradual, safe plan for the reopening of business. PCPH is dedicated to helping businesses in Preble County get ready to open as quickly and safely as possible as milestones in the Governor’s plan are reached. We encourage our local business partners to reach out to our department to develop plans and protocols to protect the health of their employees and patrons.
“Finally, while it is a last resort, our department can and will work with law enforcement to the extent set forth by Ohio law.”
“It would be an understatement to say that staying at home and quarantining has been tough economically, socially, and mentally,” Balster said. “But we need to go slow. We also acknowledge that the success of reopening ultimately relies on individual choices. We ask that Preble County citizens continue to do an excellent job at protecting themselves and their community.”
Reach Eddie Mowen Jr. at 937-683-4056 or follow on Twitter @emowen_RH.