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Cincinnati Exploring Civil Fines Instead Of Criminal Penalties For Health Order Violations

A Walgreens in Downtown Cincinnati posted its social distancing guidelines for customers in April.
Bill Rinehart
A Walgreens in Downtown Cincinnati posted its social distancing guidelines for customers in April.

Cincinnati City Council is expected to vote on an ordinance Wednesday that would impose civil fines instead of criminal penalties for businesses in the city who violate the state's public health orders and related safety guidelines.

Mayor John Cranley announced the proposal Tuesday and said the city wanted to balance the need for enforcement with the need to work collaboratively with businesses.

The city will have 37 inspectors from the city health department working to make sure businesses understand the guidelines and comply with them.

"Sanitarians essentially are going to go business by business, but we're going to target it in areas that have the highest incidents of actual COVID positives," said city Environmental Health Director Antonio Young.

The inspections will be unannounced, and those inspectors will be focused on whether businesses are meeting physical distancing guidelines for customers; that all employees are wearing face coverings; and that hand sanitizer is available for use by customers.

The city will provide warnings and information first, give businesses time to comply with the requirements, and then issue civil fines after that.

The fines will start at $75 for a first offense, increase to $150 for a second, and can go as high as $500 for more serious violations.

Since hand sanitizer is hard to find, businesses can show they have ordered it and are waiting for it to arrive.

"These are inspections that are more educational in nature and more guidance in nature," Young said. "We're there to work with the businesses. We know the businesses have been through a lot in terms of hardship just going through the COVID situation."

The city's inspection process is different from the Hamilton County Health Department's approach, which will rely on complaints from customers about businesses when taking enforcement actions.

The city will also be responding to customer complaints about businesses as well.

Meanwhile, Cranley is proposing another ordinance to protect employees in the city from being terminated or demoted because they've been told by a doctor or contact tracer to stay at home for 14 days because of concerns about COVID-19. It would also apply to caring for a dependent who was ordered to stay home.

"We wanted to clearly state on behalf of workers, that if you are ordered by a doctor or by a contact tracer to stay home, that in the city of Cincinnati you will have employment protection," Cranley said.

Cranley said the vast majority of employers "would never think of doing such a thing," but he said there are always "bad apples."

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Jay Hanselman brings more than 10 years experience as a news anchor and reporter to 91.7 WVXU. He came to WVXU from WNKU, where he hosted the local broadcast of All Things Considered. Hanselman has been recognized for his reporting by the Kentucky AP Broadcasters Association, the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and the Ohio AP Broadcasters.