STEUBENVILLE — Get ready, Jefferson County.
After months of restrictions, the county board of health is ready to let you enjoy things like outdoor concerts, fireworks and road races, but their acquiescence comes with a caveat — if organizers don’t follow established safety protocols and COVID-19 numbers surge, they’ll have no choice but to reconsider.
Board members Dr. Patrick Macedonia, Dr. Frank L. Petrola and Clark Craigo voted Tuesday to lift the restrictions “for any event, provided they adhere to ODH (Ohio Department of Health) best practices, we’re allowing them to have the events,” though it took 80 minutes of sometimes contentious discussion to reach a consensus.
“We’re saying yes, as long as you can follow the guidelines,” Macedonia said.
Health Commissioner Nicole Balakos noted the ODH guidelines haven’t changed: Require employees to wear face coverings, and recommend them for patrons. Do daily health assessments. Practice good hygiene. Clean and sanitize public areas regularly. Limit capacity to meet social distancing guidelines.
What is changing is the board has given local event organizers a chance to host group activities, just as long as the accepted health protocols are incorporated into their plans.
“It’s taking a chance, but I think we have the ability to start restrictions again if we see spikes,” Macedonia said minutes before the meeting adjourned.
The governor’s executive order limiting public gatherings expires July 1. State officials have indicated new rules are on the horizon, but they aren’t saying what those rules will entail.
Tuesday’s emergency meeting began with Macedonia questioning why Balakos was asking the board to set reopening policies for classes of events running the gamut from 5K races, fireworks and outdoor concerts to bingo, motor sports, ATV events, school events, sports tournaments and showers in gyms needing attendants, insisting that county health boards should not be making policies or deciding who can and cannot host events.
“The way the order reads, anything that’s not specifically open is still closed unless locally, we decide (differently),” Balakos explained.
“My concern is July 1, the orders are up,” Craigo pointed out. “Why are we worried about it now and not a month ago?”
“We have been,” she replied.
Rob Herrington, director of the Jefferson County 911 Center and Wintersville Fire and Rescue chief, underscored the ridiculousness of the state allowing the fire department to schedule wedding receptions with up to 300 people in a hall that seats 600, but refusing to okay bingo for 150 people using the same space.
Others characterized state policies as a moving target, saying how state health officials interpret the regulations can change daily, though Balakos pointed out, “In their defense, they’re creating it as it happens. They’ll make a decision Monday, then somebody finds flaws with it so they’ll tell us later” it’s changed.
“That’s why a lot of counties are going to their local health boards, taking what (state officials) say and adapting,” Balakos added. “…If you can have a wedding safely for 300 people then you can probably have bingo safely.”
Macedonia, though, said as board members, “it’s our liability” that’s on the line. He insisted expecting board members to establish reopening policies would be “making a mistake.”
“We’re not out there to decide what (people) can do and can’t do,” he reiterated.
The health board’s legal counsel, Emanuela Agresta, agreed, saying the situation is “at a juncture where, unfortunately, there are no black and white answers.”
“I don’t know that we’re in a position to offer black and white answers…unless we are prepared to be taken to court,” Agresta said, adding, “there’s always going to be someone who challenges what you do. You want to make sure you can withstand the challenge.”
Balakos said she wants to work with event organizers to make sure they develop and follow health protocols. “It’s better to be proactive, to be involved and figure out how to do something safely,” she said. “It’s better to be involved, have a conversation with them and figure out how can (they) do it safely.
“We’re not asking for permission. We’re asking what the policy is.”
“I don’t understand why this is so hard,” Macedonia countered. “There’s nothing that says we’re required to tell people what to do. I think that’s where we, as a board, are going to get in trouble.”
“I want it to be best practice, safe practice,” he added. “If the numbers go up, then we’ll do something about it. I want to give everyone a chance to do the right thing. (But) we are not going to be the police of this. We don’t want to be in that position.”
Macedonia, likewise, balked at the board dictating what school events and tournaments are permissible, telling Balakos, “It’s not our job to clarify what goes on in schools.”
But Balakos’s assistant said she’d been asked if Toronto could have an outdoor prom. She said the caller told her the board of education had agreed, but only if the health department signed off.
“My answer is going to be to them, ‘Here’s the five principles.’” she said. “That’s not what they want.”
A board member said school officials had, in effect, “passed the buck” to the health department.
“So you pass the buck back to them,”Agresta replied, adding, “We don’t have the authority to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’”
Macedonia said if it’s that hard for health officials to figure out how to proceed, “how do you expect people to know what they’re supposed to do?
“It’s unprecedented, but that’s the system they gave us,” Balakos replied.
“It’s almost like you need a road map to do this,” agreed Steubenville City Manager Jim Mavromatis. “It’s very frustrating for the citizens. They’ve been cooped up for three months, they want to get out and do things.”
Macedonia said so far, Jefferson County has been spared the brunt of the pandemic, “but if we start seeing there’s a spike, then we have to authority to restrict. That’s kind of my thought on how we deal with this.”
“If there’s a spike, that’s when you start backtracking a bit on expanding the guidelines,” he said. “But right now, I think it will be hard for people to understand why there are so many restrictions placed on them when we can’t really consider ourselves a hot spot.”
Herrington said domestic violence and mental health calls have spiked over the past three months, “and I think overall paranoia would be lessened a bit if there were some normal events” for people to look forward to.
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