The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s coronavirus response has become a national guide to the crisis

Gov. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) announced March 16 that the state would be delaying its presidential primary due to the dangers posed by the coronavirus outbreak. (Video: Reuters)
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When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced a ban on spectators at the Arnold Classic, a juggernaut of a sports festival that brings tens of millions in revenue, the move seemed radical. It was March 3, and the state, after all, had not even had a single confirmed case of the novel coronavirus.

But within days, large-capacity events were being canceled nationwide.

A week later, DeWine recommended that his state’s colleges suspend in-person classes. Across the country, they soon did. He then closed Ohio’s public schools. Other states followed.

And on Sunday, DeWine ordered all restaurants and bars be shuttered. By Monday, they were turning out the lights in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, too.

State leaders, including various governors and the D.C. mayor, announced that all bars and restaurants will be closing in order to slow the spread of covid-19. (Video: The Washington Post)

What you need to know about coronavirus

As a global pandemic each day transforms the unthinkable into America’s new reality, the path is being guided by an unlikely leader: the short and bespectacled 73-year-old Republican governor of America’s seventh-most-populous state.

DeWine might have helped set the national agenda for responding to the coronavirus again Monday, announcing a lawsuit against his state to delay in-person voting in the primary that had been slated for Tuesday. Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Richard A. Frye rejected DeWine’s lawsuit Monday night, throwing the primary into chaos. The plaintiffs planned to immediately appeal.

“We cannot conduct this election tomorrow,” DeWine declared at his regular afternoon news conference, which has become a must-watch event for residents across the state — and for anyone in the country who wants to know where the crisis is headed next.

The announcement was typical of the no-nonsense, high-fact way in which DeWine has delivered his daily dose of bad news. He frequently cites the advice of public health professionals. He doesn’t mention politics. He shows his concern about the impact of his choices, which he has acknowledged could be devastating for the economy. He sugarcoats nothing.

“In a sense, these were tough decisions, but in a sense, they were not,” DeWine said in an interview. “This is life and death.”

The governor’s ahead-of-the-curve response has won raves from public health experts and from politicians of both parties, who say DeWine’s reliance on medical advice and his unwillingness to put a sheen on the crisis’s damaging impact stands out — particularly when compared with the response from the Trump White House.

Unlike President Trump, who repeatedly played down the severity of the crisis, DeWine has aggressively escalated the state’s response using sound public health principles, Fairchild said. He has done so while persuading residents that while they do not need to panic, they should be concerned.

“There are some things we need to be alarmed about,” Fairchild said.

Polls show that, nationwide, not everyone is convinced. Recent surveys have concluded that many Americans do not believe they need to change their travel plans or avoid restaurants because of the coronavirus. Republicans have been especially likely to perceive warnings about the virus as overblown, a view that has become a mantra for some conservative media outlets.

Top officials have fed those sentiments. Beyond Trump, who has regularly promoted the idea that the virus could suddenly “disappear,” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) came under fire for tweeting a photo of himself and his family at a crowded restaurant. “It’s packed tonight!” he wrote Saturday.

The next day, he declared a state of emergency as the state announced its eighth coronavirus case.

Within Ohio, too, DeWine has had his share of doubters.

As the governor was considering shutting down restaurants Sunday, Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder raised objections, saying he preferred the less-severe step of reducing maximum occupancy.

“This keeps these businesses open, controls the crowd and may even help spread business around in a community,” Householder, a Republican, wrote on Twitter.

“Speaker, that’s solid counsel,” the Republican Attorney General, Dave Yost, replied minutes later.

But others have been convinced by the governor’s arguments, even when his decisions appear to go against their interests — at least in the short term.

The Ohio Restaurant Association, which represents a $24 billion industry, was initially resistant to the idea of shutting down the state’s 22,000 eating and drinking establishments. But the governor and his top officials consulted with the group as the decision was being made this weekend, and offered a compelling case for why there was no other choice. They ultimately settled on allowing businesses to stay open for deliveries and takeaway orders, while banning in-person dining.

“This was not a decision they made on a whim. It was not taken lightly,” said Homa Moheimani, who directs communications for the association. “You heard Governor DeWine say ‘I’m so sorry’ and you could really feel that.”

DeWine — who has had a four-decade career in politics that includes stints as a congressman, a senator and the state’s attorney general — said in his interview with The Washington Post that he was guided by experience: His biggest mistakes, he said, stem from not digging deeply enough into the facts and trusting experts. Those are errors he is not willing to make when it comes to fighting the coronavirus, he said.

“I have a basic belief that if you have the right facts you’re probably going to make the right decision,” DeWine said.

When it came to coronavirus, he said his instincts were telling him to move faster than anyone thought possible. He has been in constant contact with Amy Acton, the state health director. Acton and members of her team have consulted as many of the top public health officials in Ohio, the country and the world as they could.

Each afternoon, DeWine and Acton try to convey to Ohioans in the plainest language possible that the coronavirus is a direct threat to their health, even though just 50 cases have been officially detected statewide. Acton last week estimated that at least 100,000 people in the state have the virus — the vast majority of them having never been tested.

At one recent news conference, DeWine used charts to illustrate why it was so important to keep people away from one another right now. He showed what happened in St. Louis and Philadelphia during the 1918 flu pandemic: St. Louis ordered people to stay inside, while a parade went forward as planned in Philadelphia. Twelve thousand people died in Philadelphia, while countless lives were saved in St. Louis.

DeWine grew up in a small town about 20 miles from Dayton. His family started a seed company, which made them independently wealthy. He met his wife, Fran, in first grade and they married while they were in college. She often appears at news conferences and other events with her husband. They have eight children, one of whom died in a car accident, and 24 grandchildren.

Friends say DeWine often has been underestimated throughout his career, but for superficial reasons: He is short of stature and, until he had the problem corrected, one of his eyes was not properly aligned.

A Catholic and a social conservative, DeWine signed one of the nation’s strictest bans on abortion last year. But he also has advocated for beefing up the state’s social services and is known for reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats.

Nan Whaley, the Democratic mayor of Dayton, said DeWine offered abundant support after a gunman killed nine people in her city in August. A week ago, she texted him to thank him for his leadership on the coronavirus and his response was stark: He told her to cancel all large events and move city employees to telework.

“I disagree with him on all kinds of things, but he can lead,” she said. “Watching the leadership of state and local officials through this crisis, I’m so proud to be in this state.”

Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics who has written a book about the state’s politics, said DeWine has surrounded himself with accomplished officials who know their subjects. The Republicans, he said, have a deep bench of such experts, having dominated state politics for the past several decades.

“Whatever you think of the policy decisions of the governor, it’s a professionally run operation,” said Kondik, who used to work for Richard Cordray, the Democrat whom DeWine defeated in the 2010 attorney general’s race and in a 2018 rematch, this time for governor.

Kondik said he had been planning a trip to Ohio last week to discuss the upcoming primary. But DeWine’s performance at a news conference, in which he warned of the public health dangers because of the coronavirus if people did not stay put, convinced him to cancel.

At times, the news conferences can resemble a crash course in epidemiology, though the focus is on the biggest and most important concepts and the language is simple and direct.

“I think everyone in Ohio knows now what it means now to bend the curve,” said John Corlett, who leads Ohio’s Center for Community Solutions, a nonpartisan think tank.

Corlett said DeWine’s response to coronavirus tracks with how he has approached other issues, including social services and child welfare. Rather than govern based on ideology or politics, the governor and his staff have taken the time to study the issues, Corlett said.

To many in the state, including some Republicans, that approach stands in contrast with Trump’s.

Betty Montgomery, a Republican former Ohio attorney general, acknowledged that Trump’s challenge in governing amid the pandemic is massive. But she said that, particularly in the beginning, “his communication was, at best, poor.”

DeWine, meanwhile, hasn’t wavered.

“These decisions have been difficult, and he’s well aware of the consequences. He could have taken the easy way out,” said Montgomery, who has known DeWine for decades. “But he didn’t take a political position. He took a leadership position.”

An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of Homa Moheimani, communications manager for the Ohio Restaurant Association. The story has been updated.

Joanna Connors, a freelance reporter in Cleveland, contributed to this report.