UPDATED: Delaware police, county sheriff's office leaving mask enforcement up to health district

PAUL COMSTOCK
editorial@thisweeknews.com
Powell resident Jessica Greenwald wears a mask during a June rally in Powell. The city of Delaware opted this week not to pursue an ordinance that would require the wearing of masks in public places in the city.

Delaware Police Department and Delaware County Sheriff’s Office officials said they would not seek out those violating a mandatory face mask order that took effect July 17 when the county was placed on a Level 3 “red alert” regarding the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Prior to announcing a statewide mandate July 22, Gov. Mike DeWine on July 7 introduced the Ohio Public Health Advisory System and ordered that masks be worn in public in counties that are at Level 3 (red) or 4 (purple), indicating a high likelihood of increasing exposure in those counties.

The Delaware General Health District said the system uses seven indicators to gauge increasing coronavirus spread in a county.

DeWine announced July 16 Delaware County’s status was changed from Level 2 to 3 in part because of 233 new cases in the preceding two weeks among its population of about 174,000 residents.

“This is more than the entire country of Ireland, population 4.9 million, had over the same period of time,” DeWine said.

Level 3 included mandatory face mask use, whereas Level 2 did not.

On July 22, DeWine announced a statewide mask mandate that went into effect at 6 p.m. July 23.

“Our preliminary data indicate that the rate of increase in new cases has slowed in the high-risk counties where masks are already mandated, so we are cautiously optimistic that things are heading in the right direction,” said DeWine in a July 22 news release after announcing the order. “We believe that requiring masks statewide will make a significant difference and will be key to making sure other counties do not progress to a higher level of increased spread.”

He also issued a travel advisory for all individuals coming into Ohio from states reporting positive COVID-19 testing rates of 15% or higher, saying anyone returning from those states should quarantine for 14 days. Those states as of July 22 were Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina and Texas.

“I know this will be hard and is a sacrifice, especially as summer vacations are in full force, but when we have a higher likelihood of being exposed, we should take precautions to limit the exposure of others,” DeWine said in the release.

DeWine and health officials, including the local health district, say they believe the spread of the coronavirus can be limited significantly if everyone would wear a face mask in public.

But city police and the sheriff’s office announced on Twitter they won’t search for those not wearing masks.

“The Delaware Police Department encourages voluntary compliance with the mask mandate,” the department’s tweet said.

“The sheriff’s office strongly encourages its residents to use masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and hopefully prevent another stay-at-home order,” the sheriff’s office tweet said.

“If you believe you or others are at risk, please contact the Delaware General Health District so that they can investigate the concern and recommend the best action steps to address the health and safety of all. We continue to rely on our local experts at the health district,” the sheriff’s office tweet said.

“The Delaware General Health District, who have worked tirelessly to ensure your health throughout this COVID-19 crisis, is the point of contact for any question or complaints,” the police tweet said.

On its website, the health district listed four of the state’s seven indicators that moved the county to Level 3.

They are new cases per capita, a sustained increase in new cases, the proportion of new cases in noncongregate settings and a sustained increase in outpatient visits with COVID-like symptoms.

The health district is staying very busy, Shelia Hiddleson, health district commissioner, said July 17.

“The health district is staffed seven days a week for 12 hours each day,” she said. “Most staff are still working 40 to 45 hours per week.

“Some of us are working many more hours. We have been able to hire five more intermittent staff and have three more coming on at the end of the month. The workload continues to grow, the number of cases waiting in our queue every morning seems to be at least 20,” she said.

At Delaware City Council’s June 13 meeting, Hiddleson said the health district does not list someone twice in its coronavirus totals if they test positive twice. She said if one person in a household tests positive, the district does not automatically include others in the household in the number of positive cases.

“We have no outbreaks right now in any of our congregate-living situations,” such as long-term care facilities, she said.

The health district has found multiple outbreaks in which young people went on vacation together and all tested positive for coronavirus, Hiddleson said.

The greatest risk of contracting coronavirus occurs, she told council, when a person spends 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone carrying the virus.

At that meeting, council spent nearly three hours on a discussion of whether the city should introduce legislation for a unilateral mask mandate.

Five council members opposed the idea, with some citing the difficulty of enforcement.

About 90 minutes of the meeting was devoted to citizen comments by those who either sent emails to the city or joined the remote meeting streamed live on Facebook.

Mayor Carolyn Kay Riggle said among those citizens, 24 opposed a mask requirement and 13 supported it.

Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on July 19, DeWine said 60% of Ohio counties were at least at Level 3.

The state, he said, launched an ad campaign July 21 to spread the message, “You wear the mask for other people.”

Ohio is “going the wrong way. We’re at a crucial time” regarding the pandemic, he said.

The general health district doesn’t include areas of the county in the cities of Westerville, Dublin or Columbus, so those cases are not included in the health-district totals.

Those areas are covered by Franklin County Public Health or Columbus Public Health.

ThisWeek assistant managing editor Scott Hummel contributed to this story.

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