DeWine’s quick response to coronavirus looks prescient now

Ohio governor praised for making tough decisions early in the pandemic

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine speaks to mourners at a memorial service  for victims of the mass shooting in Dayton in August 2019. DeWine has earned praise from both parties for his decisive action early on to confront the coronavirus crisis. (Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo)
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine speaks to mourners at a memorial service for victims of the mass shooting in Dayton in August 2019. DeWine has earned praise from both parties for his decisive action early on to confront the coronavirus crisis. (Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo)
Posted March 31, 2020 at 11:00am

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s daily 2 p.m. TV briefing in his effort to stop the spread of coronavirus has grown so popular, followers created a special hashtag: #winewithdewine. “We all have a happy hour together and learn about our future from our governor while enjoying cocktails,” one supporter tweeted.

It’s where the first-term governor and his director of health, Amy Acton, provide updates, and where DeWine has announced some of the hardest decisions in his four decades in public service: On March 12, he closed the schools. On March 15, he closed bars and restaurants to all but carry-out and delivery service. On March 16, he announced he would back a court order seeking to stop the state’s primary election in order to protect often-elderly poll workers, rescheduling it to June 2, prompting a vigorous debate among law professors about the legality of the delay. Ultimately, the Ohio General Assembly weighed in, passing a bill that extended absentee voting through April 28.

The decisions are painful, but DeWine, 73, has earned support from across the aisle. David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, has sued him over the decision to reschedule the primary for June 2 but has admitted publicly that DeWine’s efforts throughout the crisis have been commendable and even says the decision to delay the election was a reasonable one; he just objects to the way DeWine did it, unilaterally scheduling a new election.

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“He has decades of experience he’s drawing on,” says GOP Rep. Steve Stivers, who represents part of the state capital of Columbus and environs. “He’s making tough calls. He’s doing things that are smart. He’s doing an incredible job as evidenced by the fact that we haven’t seen as big a problem in Ohio as other states.” (As of Monday, the state had 1,933 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, while 39 state residents had died of it.)

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Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, whose district includes the working class hubs of Youngstown and Akron, says he has either texted or talked to DeWine regularly for the past two weeks. On March 15, he talked to DeWine about the bars, telling the governor that people were still going out, and telling him: “It’s your call, but if you do it, I’ll back you up.”

“He didn’t tip his hand one way or another,” Ryan says, “but when he did it, I said it was the right thing to do.

“I don’t want him second-guessing that he’s doing the right thing because he thinks someone’s going to blindside him politically,” Ryan says. “I just feel like he is doing exactly what a leader should be doing — listening to the experts, and following the science.”

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The state’s Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown, who unseated DeWine in 2006, says DeWine and Acton are “stepping up and filling in the gap that President Trump and his administration have created with their ineptitude.”

‘The guy’s been tested’

“The guy’s been tested,” says Mike Dawson, who served as communications director for DeWine when DeWine served in the Senate. “Forty years in the business tests you.”

DeWine, he says, learned about crisis management firsthand in 1993, when, as lieutenant governor for then-GOP Gov. George Voinovich, he was asked to oversee the response to the Lucasville prison riots, when 450 inmates took over the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility for 11 days. One corrections officer and nine inmates died during the riot.

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That experience, coupled with years in Congress, he says, taught DeWine how to keep a cool head despite adversity: “He’s listening to experts and is willing to make tough decisions.”

Dawson says the 2 p.m. briefings have become a touchstone for Ohioans looking for facts and reassurances.

At one briefing, Acton urged Ohioans not to be afraid. “I’m not afraid,” she said. “I am determined.”

She made that proclamation on March 22 — the day she and DeWine issued a stay-at-home order, urging Ohioans only to leave the house for essential services.

“These are very tough decisions,” Dawson says. “But if you don’t make them, you’re putting people’s lives at stake.”

DeWine’s first tough coronavirus decision came on March 3, when he and Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, a Democrat, drastically scaled back the Arnold Classic, a bodybuilding sports festival affiliated with former California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that’s held annually in Columbus and draws roughly 60,000 people from 80 countries. Schwarzenegger, who originally supported the decision, later fought it after realizing the Cleveland Cavaliers and Columbus Blue Jackets were still allowing their games to go on as scheduled. Ultimately, Acton issued her order shutting down the event to all spectators.

“At that point, there hadn’t been much closed down around the country,” DeWine says. “That was the biggest event that was closed down, and when we did it, I think a lot of people thought I was nuts.

“If I look back at it, it’s almost like a no-brainer now,” he says, because having big crowds in a small space for four days in a row “was like a recipe for disaster.”

Keeping a list

DeWine, who spent eight years in the House and 12 in the Senate before becoming Ohio attorney general in 2011, then governor in 2019, says he keeps a list of mistakes he’s made — “I have a list, but I won’t share it with you” — and most have one thing in common.

“I didn’t have enough facts. I didn’t dig deep enough. I didn’t talk to the right people,” he says. “With coronavirus, I really put a premium on getting all the facts, all the information.”

But he also trusts his gut: “Sometimes when I got it wrong and made a mistake, that’s when I have not trusted my instinct.”

Some decisions lead to others. His decision to appoint Acton — the last appointment he made when filling his cabinet — has helped him through the crisis. He picked her because she was a doctor, because she had a public health background and because she was a strong communicator. And he felt it was important to have a credible public health voice in a state where mental health issues, obesity, smoking and opioid abuse are critical problems.

The decision was fortuitous: “She’s the one people are listening to,” DeWine says.

Of all the closures, the decision to delay the March 17 election was one of DeWine’s hardest.

“I thought: We’re telling them two things. We’re telling them to go vote, but then we’re telling them, ‘but don’t leave your house.’ ”

DeWine backed a lawsuit by older voters who were scared to vote. But a judge rejected that suit, and Acton ultimately decided to declare a public health emergency to delay the election.

“Ultimately more people will be able to vote” due to the decision, DeWine believes, especially with the extension of time for absentee voting.

DeWine says he’s “very, very mindful” of his decision’s impact on small businesses and the state economy.

“It’s brutal,” he says. “But ultimately I’ve got a responsibility to do all I can do to keep people in the state safe.”

So far, though, he is satisfied with the decisions he has made and hopes he continues to be:

“I worry about future decisions now. I worry about getting those right.”