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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

Ohio Ending Mass Gathering Ban As Part Of Simplified Health Order

Office of Gov. Mike DeWine

Ohio is issuing a new, streamlined health order that encompasses its guidance on mass gatherings and other COVID-19 restrictions. Gov. Mike DeWine announced the new orderat a press conference Monday, calling it a return to "basics."

"The best safety measures are the ones people can understand, remember, and apply faithfully to everyday life," says Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer of the Ohio Department of Health.

DeWine and Vanderhoff, along with Ohio Department of Health director Stephanie McCloud, said the simplified order drills down on the "common sense" actions at the core of Ohio's previous health measures.

"We're making it clear in this order that proms can occur. We're making it clear in this order that festivals can occur. We're making it clear in this order that graduations can occur," DeWine said. "You can do about anything, it's about how we do it."

McCloud said the consolidated order, which was signed today, will help clear up confusion that Ohioans might have about what demands apply to them, whether they're running a business or organizing an event.

Under Ohio's current mass gatherings ban,people are prohibited from holding “all public and private gatherings of greater than 10 people” outside of their home or place of residence. However, the state made allowances for indoor and outdoor sporting events, entertainment venues, county fairs and other events.

Now, McCloud says that blanket mass gatherings ban will go away; instead, the state will ask that people keep their own groups below 10 people. At the same time, people still need to keep distance from other groups, remain seated when eating or drinking and wear face masks at all other times.

"Individuals must avoid gathering in groups and attempt at all times to maintain social distancing," the new order reads. "When gathered together, individuals should be in a group of no more than 10 individuals that is separated from other groups by at least six feet."

McCloud said that indoor events will remain limited at 25% capacity, because of the greater risk of spreading disease, while there are no capacity limits for outdoor events, although venues will need to follow the physical distancing requirements.

DeWine emphasized that the statewide mask mandate has not changed, however.

"Above all, common sense. Wear a mask. Social distancing," DeWine said. "Being outside is always just so much better than being inside. Good hand-washing. And limiting gatherings of large number of people who are directly with you."

At the top of Monday's order is the simple preamble: "Everyone should wear a mask when engaging with others outside their household." Meanwhile, another order issued Monday rescinds a number of duplicative or conflicting rules.

DeWine's announcement comes just weeks after the Ohio General Assembly overrode his veto to pass SB22, a law that allows the legislature to overturn any states of emergency and public health orders issued by the governor. Republican legislative leaders say they may vote to end DeWine's restrictions as soon as June, when they return to session for the state budget.

However, DeWine said the new health order was not influenced by the legislature's actions.

The governor previously stated that Ohio will drop all public health orders when the two-week infection rate drops to 50 cases per 100,000 people. But after months of rapidly dropping cases and hospitalizations, the state is seeing numbers rise again — the current rate stands at 167 cases per 100,000 people — in part due to surges in Michigan and northern Ohio.

Vanderhoff said that Ohio remains "in the thick of things with COVID-19," with the positivity rate above 4% and rising numbers of variants in the state. At the same time, he touted that 32% of the state's population — or 3.7 million people — have gotten at least one shot of the vaccine.

"The message with these revised orders, therefore, is clear: Simple steps can save lives and put this pandemic behind us," Vanderhoff says.

Copyright 2021 WOSU 89.7 NPR News

Gabe Rosenberg