New pressure on Ohio governor, once hailed for virus action

FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2019, file photo, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine speaks about his plans for the coming year during an interview at the Governor's Residence in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio's Republican governor was hailed as prophetic for his decisive steps to shut down schools and stop the state's presidential primary election early during the coronavirus outbreak. Since then, he's found navigating a path out of the state's pandemic shutdown to be a bumpy one. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 13, 2019, file photo, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine speaks about his plans for the coming year during an interview at the Governor's Residence in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio's Republican governor was hailed as prophetic for his decisive steps to shut down schools and stop the state's presidential primary election early during the coronavirus outbreak. Since then, he's found navigating a path out of the state's pandemic shutdown to be a bumpy one. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Early during the coronavirus outbreak, Ohio’s Republican governor appeared prophetic with his decisive steps to ban spectators from a sports expo, shut down all schools before any other state and put a stop to the presidential primary.

Since then, Gov. Mike DeWine has backtracked away from a statewide mask mandate, delivered mixed messages on large gatherings, faced a mutiny within his party over business closures and juggled listening to both health experts and those who doubt them. For DeWine, navigating a path out of the state’s pandemic shutdown has been a bumpy one.

His aggressive moves that won early praise have tilted toward messages of personal responsibility, following the direction of governors in Republican-leaning states who resisted wide crackdowns. But now that the virus is surging again in Ohio, DeWine is taking what he calls a “surgical, precise approach” by requiring masks in just the hardest-hit counties even as some states are issuing wider and stricter measures.

The question is: Can this balancing act work?

It’s a strategy that has encountered criticism from all sides: those who think that his edicts have gone too far and those who believe he’s backed down from protecting the public.

“The same people who are telling me this mask mandate is crazy, are the same people who are saying to me, well, you can’t shut business down,” DeWine, 73, said in an interview with The Associated Press last week. “I agree we have to keep business open, but their failure to wear a mask does not help businesses move forward.”

In a televised address Wednesday, DeWine appealed to Ohioans on an emotional level to make “once-in-a-hundred year sacrifices” to protect their neighbors — whether or not the government requires them to do so.

With allusions to the death tolls taken by the Spanish flu epidemic and the Vietnam War, he implored Ohioans to wear face coverings at all times when they're in public, but issued no mandate. He said the strategy over four to six weeks “could drive this epidemic to the ground.”