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Republican governor hopefuls hone in on DeWine's COVID response

Protesters gather outside of the Ohio State House in Columbus, Ohio Monday April 20, 2020, to protest the state's stay-at-home order.
Gene Puskar
Associated Press
Protesters gather outside of the Ohio State House in Columbus, Ohio Monday April 20, 2020, to protest the state's stay-at-home order.

The candidates challenging incumbent Gov. Mike DeWine for Republican nomination in next month's Ohio primary said he mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic.

But DeWine counters that the decisions his administration made positioned Ohio for the future. As part of the Ohio Public Statehouse News Bureau's 2022 Election series, we take a look at the issue of public health and the pandemic in the Republican gubernatorial race.

When DeWine first took office as governor, he focused his attention on things like early childhood development, funding for additional school services and water quality.

But in March of 2020, his term changed dramatically when the first cases of the coronavirus were reported in Ohio.

Read: Ohio Voter Guide: What To Know About The 2022 Election

As COVID-19 began to spread, DeWine immediately put in place health orders to shut down businesses and schools, and implement social distancing requirements.

"It was my responsibility as governor to take the actions that needed to be taken. I think if you looked at how Ohio approached the pandemic and how other States approach the pandemic, I believe that we had a proper balance between public safety and also allowing people to make their livelihoods," DeWine said.

Though more than 38,000 Ohioans have died of COVID, the state currently ranks 23rd in COVID-19 deaths per capita and 40th in the country in COVID-19 cases per capita.

Republican former Congressman Jim Renacci is a vocal critic of DeWine's health orders and said he went too far in shutting things down.

"Look, we did have a health care crisis. There is no doubt about it. But at the same time, we had an economic crisis. And when you're a leader, you have to judge all of those issues and you have to make decisions for everybody," he said.

Renacci said the health orders that closed some businesses and allowed others to remain open, such as big box stores, were uneven. He also slams DeWine for carrying out a statewide mask mandate.

"When did we start taking away these rights? That's the real issue that I'm hearing as I travel around Ohio. And that's the concern I have too. So as governor, again, these are decisions. These should be individual choice decisions," Renacci said.

The former Congressman said one of the problems was that DeWine did not follow the right checks and balances by seeking approval for the policy changes through the legislature.

While Ohio was one of the first states to shut down businesses early in the pandemic, it was also one of the first to start opening businesses back up in May 2020. DeWine said he doesn't want to downplay the tragedies of the pandemic but adds their plan positioned Ohio for the future.

"I think if you look at what's happened since we got vaccination, for example, and everyone had the opportunity to be vaccinated, if you look at how we're moving forward, we're moving forward exceedingly well," the governor said.

Farmer and businessman Joe Blystone did not return a request for an interview but said in a previous interview that DeWine's approach to the COVID-19 pandemic was a main reason he joined the race.

"And we saw you cover your face up. You stay away from people. Don't send your kids to school. Don't go to Our rights was severely stomped on, and I think that was the straw that broke the camel's back," Blystone said.

Former state Representative Ron Hood rounds out the list of candidates running for the Republican nomination. He did not respond to a request for comment, though in his low-profile campaign of speaking engagements, social media and podcasts he’s been sharply critical of DeWine’s COVID policies.

On the topic of vaccine mandates, Renacci said he supports private businesses creating their own policies but emphasizes that exemptions must be allowed.

DeWine has said government should neither prevent employers from enacting safety protocols nor should it require employers to mandate vaccine decisions.

The topic of COVID-19 and health orders was sure to be a subject at a statewide debate planned in March, but the debate didn't happen because DeWine declined the invitation then other candidates dropped out.

Copyright 2022 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.