Videos showed one protester antagonizing an NBC4 Columbus reporter in a face mask, ignoring the reporter’s requests to stay six feet away while accusing the reporter of “terrifying the general public."
“You know that the company you work for is lying to the American people,” the protester yelled.
Later, roughly two dozen demonstrators showed up Saturday at the private family home of Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton, holding signs that said, “Dr. Amy Over-Re-Acton, Hairstylists Are Essential” or “Let Freedom Work,” Cleveland.com reported.
On Monday, DeWine had a message for them: “The buck stops with me” — so target him instead, he said.
“I’m the elected official. I’m the one who ran for office. I’m the one who makes the policy decisions. … So when you don’t like the policy, you can demonstrate against me,” DeWine said.
DeWine, who has already begun reopening various sectors of the state’s economy, said he respected the protesters’ right to demonstrate but did not see the point of being “obnoxious” toward reporters or going to the health chief’s family home to try to make a statement they could easily make on public grounds.
“To bother the family of Dr. Acton, I don’t think that’s fair game,” he said. “I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think it’s necessary to get your point across.”
DeWine also questioned why the demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights would decide to target reporters exercising theirs. The reporters and photographers were “doing nothing more than following that First Amendment, informing the public — and just remember, they’re informing the public about what you think.”
“But if you treat them with disrespect, to not observe social distancing with them, to be just obnoxious, I just find that very, very sad,” the governor said. “So come after me. I’m fair game. They’re not.”
DeWine, whose tempered manner and no-nonsense, evidence-guided approach to the novel coronavirus made him an early model leader in the crisis, is an Ohio Republican Party mainstay who has held public office since 1977, including as a U.S. senator. As such, he said he knows a thing or two about protests. “I’ve had demonstrators demonstrate against me in most of the offices, if not all the offices, I ever held,” he said.
So from the beginning, DeWine made clear that protesting would be permitted, part of a First Amendment exception specifically carved out of his stay-at-home order — as long as the protesters respected social distancing rules.
In the most recent protests, and in many past demonstrations across the country, distancing was lacking.
Few wore face masks. Few stood six feet apart. In the viral videos of the unidentified protester hassling NBC4 Columbus reporter Adrienne Robbins, the reporter asks the woman to please keep her distance, but the protester persists.
Pointing a finger at Robbins, the woman says: “You know that what you’re doing is wrong at the end of the day. You know it. You see how nervous you are? You’re shaking! You are sweating! Your glasses, you can’t even see out of them! You’re terrified!” The context is not entirely clear, as the video does not depict the entire exchange.
“That’s because I’m wearing my mask,” Robbins responded.
“Your mask is down underneath your nose again,” the woman said, as Robbins was fixing it. “You’re terrifying the general public. You realize that, right?”
Robbins said later on Twitter that she had “asked this woman to respect my space after she was yelling and spitting in my face.
“She said i had no right to social distancing in public and continued to follow me,” Robbins continued. “Complaining about my mask (that is meant to protect her and those around me).”
The face masks, just one public health tool in an arsenal of many, have managed to become an odd, divisive political flash point during the pandemic, as The Washington Post’s Katie Shepherd reported. And reporters have been hassled by protesters about their masks before. While an MSNBC reporter covered another protest of beach closures by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), live on the air Saturday, one man entered the frame to yell: “Take off your damn mask, man! You don’t need it."
Public officials who have mandated masks at businesses or in public have faced heat — including DeWine, who apparently got so much heat from conservative circles that he pulled an about-face.
DeWine announced April 27 that masks would be required in all businesses, before announcing just 24 hours later that they would no longer be required. He told ABC News’s Martha Raddatz in an interview Sunday that the mask mandate went “a bridge too far” — because one thing was evident: “People were not going to accept the government telling them what to do,” he said.
His frank observation appeared to hit on one of the greatest draws of the protests across the country, which rally against being ordered to follow rules restricting behavior. DeWine acknowledged that much of that pushback is coming from Republicans, especially after Raddatz noted that a recent ABC News poll showed Republicans are more likely to want to go to restaurants, gyms, hotels and sporting events once the businesses open.
“I think generally Republicans are less inclined to have the government tell them what to do,” DeWine said. “And that’s generally how I am. I’m a conservative Republican. I think we’re better off not having the government tell us what to do. But we are in a health crisis.”
DeWine will allow all retail shops to reopen on May 12. Employees will still be required to wear face masks, while businesses will also be allowed to ask customers to wear them.
On Monday, DeWine encouraged those demanding a faster timeline to simply “look around” and realize that Ohio is progressing at a rate faster than many other states. He added that he had friends who thought the state was moving too slow and some who thought the state was moving too fast — but that the state’s true progress will depend on the behavior of its residents and whether they’ll continue to respect social distancing practices.
“I would appeal to every Ohioan: It’s not about what you’re being told to do. It’s totally up to you. But it is the right thing to do,” he said, adding: “We’re taking a chance to move forward. We just need everyone to cooperate.”