COLUMBUS — A week before Ohio recorded any coronavirus cases, Gov. Mike DeWine delivered his first warning, banning spectators from an international fitness and bodybuilding festival that brings in more than $50 million for the state’s largest city.
Organizers of the annual Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus pushed back, and critics called DeWine an alarmist, but he didn’t budge. In the following week, he was the first governor to shut down schools statewide and also moved to keep fans away from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament first-round games in Ohio, along with NBA and NHL games in the state, before the organizations all canceled or postponed their seasons.
His latest moves: ordering all bars and restaurants to stop serving dine-in customers and effectively shutting down the state’s presidential primary Tuesday by first going to the courts and then having the state’s health director declare a health emergency.
Now the Republican’s early directives to restrict the movements of residents are being proved prophetic, and many other governors are following his lead while trying to temper the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that has infected more than 183,000 people worldwide and killed more than 7,100.
“Everybody has to make their call and what they think is the right thing to do,” DeWine said Monday. “This is a time when every governor understands the gravity of what they are doing.”
DeWine’s decision Thursday to shut down the schools kicked off a flood of statewide closings from Virginia to Oregon, with nearly 40 states now on board.
Business groups that are certain to take a financial hit are largely praising his decisions. So are the state’s Democrats, who are quick to compare DeWine’s serious and somber tone with President’s Donald Trump’s early attempts to downplay the virus as something similar to the seasonal flu.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper thanked DeWine and other governors on Twitter for “stepping in to lead in absence of traditional presidential leadership.”
At age 73, DeWine is familiar to Ohioans, though he has been little known on the national stage. He has been elected to almost every office along the way to the governor’s seat, including the U.S. Senate.
“For someone who’s spent a lifetime shaking hands and trying to talk with people, this is tough. But if I can learn to do it, everybody else can too,” he said last week while advising Ohioans to practice social distancing.
Not everyone is happy with him. Some Democrats are calling for all-absentee voting instead of a delay the primary until as late as June. Many food industry workers and owners complained on social media about how his order will kill their businesses.
Ramy Eidi, whose Toledo-based company owns 45 strips mall in the Midwest, said DeWine’s ban on large gatherings and sit-down dining had him angry initially and wondering “why are we the only ones doing this?”
“As we’re seeing other states follow and we’re hearing more about the spread of the virus, it’s becoming easier to accept,” he said Tuesday. “It’s going to show the governor saved lives. And I think we’re going to be first to recover because we were the first to act.”
Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, also a Republican, questioned on Twitter why DeWine didn’t instead reduce the number of people allowed in bars and restaurants. But he later told The Associated Press he wasn’t going to criticize the governor.
“I’m certain he has much more information regarding the severity of the situation than the rest of us,” Householder said.
As of Monday, there were 50 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Ohio, but no reported deaths.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.
In DeWine’s daily news briefings, streamed live so ordinary residents can pop in, he strikes a somber but not panicked tone, calmly reciting the latest statistics and frequently deferring to his health director, Dr. Amy Acton, to answer specific questions.
But with each passing day, DeWine has made a point to emphasize the gravity of what the nation is facing.
“Delay means more people will die,” he said Sunday. ”Literally every day we delay, the data clearly shows that more people will die.”
More than that, he said, the Ohio health care system “will not hold up” for others with urgent needs, such as those with strokes or heart attacks.
His briefings sometimes run over an hour as DeWine, Acton and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted take questions from reporters and offer detailed explanations.
“On the front end of a pandemic you look a little bit like an alarmist, you look a little bit like a Chicken Little, the sky is falling,” Acton said last week. “And on the back end of a pandemic, you didn’t do enough.”
Seewer reported from Toledo.
Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus contributed. The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.