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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.

It's been 2 years since the pandemic hit Ohio. Photos help us reflect on that first year

smale park benches covered in police tape during the coronavirus pandemic
Jason Whitman
Swinging seats are closed from use with caution tape at Smale Riverfront Park in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday, May 6, 2020, in Cincinnati.

Two years ago this month, the world changed.

On March 3, 2020, it was Super Tuesday, and one-time presidential hopefuls Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O'Rourke came together to endorse Joe Biden to be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. The war in Afghanistan was still going on. A small but deadly tornado outbreak hit Tennessee.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine was just beginning to grapple with the onset of the not-yet-worldwide coronavirus pandemic, issuing a public health order that barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival, an event that today is back to full capacity for the first time in two years. During a press conference with Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, DeWine explained his reasoning for limiting the festival when Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

At the time, nine deaths from the virus had been reported in the U.S., all from Washington state.

mayor andrew ginther and gov. mike dewine
Andy Chow
Statehouse News Bureau
Mayor Andrew Ginther and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine at a press conference March 3, 2020, announcing the that will the Arnold Sports Festival will more forward with no spectators, the trade show would be canceled.

"The two of us took an oath to protect the people that we represent and that's why we're here today with this decision," DeWine said that day.

Just days later, on March 9, 2020, DeWine declared a state of emergency and Ohio confirmed its first three cases of COVID-19 in Cuyahoga County.

DeWine earned high marks both locally and nationally for his swift response. Ohio was the first state to cancel a large event and shutter schools.

"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," a March 16 Washington Post article stated.

And as it sometimes does, all that praise would soon turn into pans from constituents and even members of his own party.

'Be good to each other'

"From what we see around the world and the United States, this disease will, for a period, significantly disrupt our lives," DeWine said March 9, with his then-Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton by his side.

amy acton mike dewine
Andy Chow
Statehouse News Bureau
Dr. Amy Acton with Gov. Mike DeWine talks to reporters on March 9, 2020.

"Be good to each other," Acton said. "There are a lot of people who are scared, there's a lot of fear, and there's a lot we can do to help each other."

It was a week before Ohio's primary election, and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted encouraged people in vulnerable populations to vote by mail rather than in-person.

The Ohio Department of Health began providing daily updates of coronavirus numbers in Ohio. At the time, 11 people in Ohio tested negative, while 255 people across the state were being monitored by local health departments.

The CDC was reporting that 19 people had died from COVID-19 so far.

'This is not a drill'

On March 11, WHO declared coronavirus a pandemic, the world's first since H1N1 in 2009.

That same day, then-Cincinnati mayor John Cranley declared a state of emergency.

"The facts are worrisome," he said during a press conference. "People need to understand this is not a drill and there are real facts in place."

On March 12, DeWine ordered schools — save for preschools and daycares — to close the following day, and banned most gatherings of more than 100 people. Meanwhile, Cincinnati canceled its St. Patrick Day parade and the Findlay Market Opening Day parade, which had just celebrated its 100th anniversary the year before. Meanwhile, "the Cincinnati St. Patrick’s Parade has a long-standing tradition of not cancelling or postponing our event, but we understand that all good things must come to an end," Chris Schulte, chairman of the Cincinnati St. Patrick's Parade committee, said in an email.

On March 13, Cincinnati confirmed its first cases of COVID. UC Health reported four people tested positive in Butler County. All were treated and released.

The first to fall

On Sunday, March 15, DeWine ordered all dine-in bars and restaurants to close effective that night. On Monday, Secretary of State Frank LaRose announced the March primary would be suspended until June 2. By the end of the day, all gyms, bowling alleys, rec centers, movie theaters, water and trampoline parks would close.

Come Friday, March 20, DeWine announced the state's first death from COVID-19. Mark Wagoner Sr., 76, was a prominent attorney in Toledo and involved with the Ohio Republican Party. He was a friend of both Gov. DeWine and Lt. Gov. Husted.

"Mick Wagoner was a friend," Husted said at during the press conference. "I had appointed him to the Board of Elections when I was Secretary of State."

mark wagoner
Mark Wagoner
Mark Wagoner's family announced his passing on Facebook, writing, "We have been working closely with the Lucas County Health Department and other entities over the last week to ensure that proper notice to those who may have been impacted was being provided. Our Dad would’ve wanted us to be looking out for others even as he was fighting for his life."

Two days later, DeWine issued his first stay-at-home order for all Ohioans and ordered the closure of businesses deemed to be "non-essential." Residents could leave their homes to conduct "essential" activities for health and safety reasons, like going to the grocery store or the pharmacy.

empty grocery store shelves due to covid
Jason Whitman
Shelves usually lined with toilet paper and other paper products sits empty at the Meijer store on Harrison Avenue in the wake of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Thursday, March 24, 2020, in Cincinnati.

They could also go outside to exercise, so long as they maintained an acceptable "social distance" of six feet. Playgrounds, however, were off limits.

playground closed due to covid
Jason Whitman
Playground equipment is roped-off with caution tape at the Veteran’s Memorial Park on Harrison Avenue in the wake of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Thursday, March 24, 2020, in Cincinnati.

“We’re trying to show the seriousness of this," DeWine said. "This is no longer a suggestion."

Dr. Acton added the order protects medical professionals on the front lines.

“I am not afraid, I am determined," Acton said. "This is our one shot, all of us will need to sacrifice.”

Supply and staff shortages

Around that time is when area hospitals began asking for donations of gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment — often called PPE by the medical community, and a term that would soon become well-used outside of that community. To help with the shortages, Ohio-based Battelle won FDA approval for its Critical Care Decontamination System, which can sterilize up to 80,000 respirator masks per system per day.

Workers inside a warehouse in Columbus, Ohio, prepare Battelle's decontamination units for deployment.
Workers inside a warehouse in Columbus, Ohio, prepare Battelle's decontamination units for deployment.

Meanwhile, many companies began issuing layoffs and furloughs, including the city of Cincinnati. Cranley called March 30 an "emotional day" where "(d)ue to the immediate sharp decrease in revenue cause by COVID-19... a staggering amount of our employees have been placed on Temporary Emergency Leave."

On Thursday, April 2, DeWine extended the stay-at-home order and the closure of nonessential businesses to May 1. On April 4, he said during what had now became daily press conferences that he would start wearing a cloth mask made by his wife, Fran. Acton said masks are another way to "flatten the curve."

dewine mask
Statehouse News Bureau

"Remember this mask is not to make you bulletproof," she said. "A virus can get through any homemade mask."

By Wednesday, April 8, 83 of Ohio's 88 counties had confirmed cases of COVID-19.

'Don't tell me what to do'

A week later, people begin protesting DeWine and Acton's stay-at-home orders and closures outside the Statehouse in Columbus, where the two held their daily briefings to review that day's case numbers.

ohio covid protests
David Holm
Protesters gather at the Ohio Statehouse to criticize the DeWine administration's coronavirus response on April 18, 2020.

Whether by causation or coincidence, not long after, Ohio announced a partnership with Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky to conduct a "fact-based, data-driven approach to reopening our economy in a way that protects families from the spread of COVID-19."

By early May, some businesses could begin to open; schools however, would remain closed.

boy playing basketball
Jason Whitman
Brian Michaud shoots baskets for exercise at Veteran’s Memorial Park on Harrison Avenue in the wake of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Thursday, March 24, 2020, in Cincinnati.

And at first, masks were required to enter those soon-to-reopen businesses. As part of his "Responsibly Restart Ohio" plan announced April 27, DeWine decreed that all businesses who planned to reopen in May must follow strict health protocols, including a "no mask, no work, no service, no exception” rule for employees, clients and customers at all times.

The pushback was immediate.

“You are asking us to be the police for your policy,” Husted said, describing the feedback he received from businesses. “And they didn’t like this."

Added DeWine, "I heard from a lot of different people who felt that, 'I may wear a mask, or I may not wear a mask, but the government should not be telling me what to do.' "

And so he reversed course, making the rule a suggestion.

"There will have to be adjustments as we go,” DeWine said. “Within the last 24 hours, it has become clear to me that a mandatory mask requirement for retail customers is offensive to some of our fellow Ohioans. I understand that. We've heard you. We will not mandate that retail customers wear a mask. But we strongly recommend that you do.”

'You should come after me'

Even with the reversal, things remained tense outside the confines of the Statehouse. At a demonstration in Columbus May 1, a protester criticized a news reporter for wearing a mask, claiming she was promoting fear. The reporter asked the woman to stay six feet away to maintain social distancing guidelines, but the protester got closer.

"It's not fair game to disrespect the news media, to be obnoxious to the news media," DeWine said during his May 4 briefing. "You should come after me. Don't go after people who are exercising First Amendment rights."

Over the same weekend, a small group of protesters also showed up at the home of Dr. Acton.

"I'm the elected official," DeWine continued. "When you don't like the policy, again, demonstrate against me. That is certainly fair game. But to bother the family of Dr. Acton, I don't think that's fair game."

Controversial legislation and a resignation

Meanwhile, the Ohio legislature was at work on a bill that would limit the powers of the Ohio Department of Health director, as well as the governor's ability to issue health orders or emergency declarations. DeWine issued a statement criticizing the moves.

"My administration is focused on the important things we need to do to help businesses responsibly reopen while protecting Ohioans' health and safety," he wrote. "Creating more uncertainty regarding public health and employee safety is the last thing we need as we work to restore consumer confidence in Ohio's economy."

Protests continued around Ohio and the nation where similar orders were put in place.

ohio coronavirus protest
Andrew Welsh Huggins
About 75 people wearing masks and carrying signs protest outside the Ohio Statehouse on Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. The protesters criticized the state's shutdown of the economy, called on Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to re-open businesses, and questioned the models used by Health Director Dr. Amy Acton to continue her shelter-at-home order during the pandemic.

Friday, May 15, was the first day restaurants were able to fully reopen and many across the state, including in Cincinnati, were packed.

cincinnati bars reopen in may 2020 during covid
Jason Whitman
People gather for food and drinks in Over-the-Rhine as restaurants and bars begin to reopen in the wake of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Saturday, May 16, 2020, in Cincinnati.

Even so, by May 28, 1,257,838 Ohioans had filed for unemployment, more than the total number of claims in the previous three years.

Come June, pop-up testing sites emerged around the state. Some sports both professional and amateur came back. And on June 11, Amy Acton announced she was vacating her post.

amy acton
Tony Dejak

In her announcement, Acton thanked DeWine for appointing her, and talked about some "long and hard days" in the job.

"Get up at 4 so I have time to read and catch up; and go to bed way, way, way late into the night," she said. "So it's something that I've known wasn't a sustainable thing given a pandemic."

She also praised how Ohioans responded to state policies intended to stop the spread of COVID-19, saying "books will be written about this" pandemic.

"Ohioans, you have saved lives," she said. "You've done this."

'I'm not gonna let it happen'

Without a public mask order at the state level, in July, many Ohio cities — including Cincinnati — began to mandate masks themselves. Cincinnati City Council Member Greg Landsman proposed the measure along with Councilmember Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney. Landsman said the goal was to "pass out more masks than tickets" for $25 for noncompliance.

Gov. DeWine, meanwhile, announced the Ohio Department of Health would issue an order for face masks be worn in Franklin, Hamilton, Butler, Montgomery, Huron, Trumble and Cuyahoga counties due to being on a "red alert" (level 3) under the state's then-new Public Health Advisory System. If the counties dropped to "yellow" (level 2), masks would no longer be required.

woman wears a protective face mask in cincinnati
Jason Whitman
A woman wears a protective face shield as she walks through downtown Cincinnati as restaurants and bars begin to reopen in the wake of the coronaviruspandemic, Saturday, May 16, 2020.

The penalty for not wearing a mask was a misdemeanor, but DeWine said the state isn't looking to make arrests.

"It would be a tragic mistake, and I'm not gonna let it happen, for us to give up the opportunity to try to keep Ohioans safe," DeWine said. "We are in a crisis. It is a very serious crisis. It is a crisis we have not seen in this state for 102 years."

By July 22, DeWine reversed course on masking again, issuing a statewide mask mandate in public places, requiring that masks must be worn at all times when at an indoor public location, when outdoors if unable to keep six-feet of social distance, and when waiting for, riding, driving, or operating public transportation. (Children under 10 and those with certain disabilities or health conditions were exempt.)

"The evidence is just abundantly clear," DeWine said at a press conference. "As I said, the jury is back, the verdict is in: masks work."

In August, a similar order was issued for masks for K-12 students.

That same month, ahead of a meeting with then-President Donald Trump, DeWine took a coronavirus test and shared that the results were positive. The same day, Aug. 6, he said a second, more sensitive test came back negative. In the coming days, he continued to test negative.

A pandemic within a pandemic

DeWine used his Aug. 20 coronavirus briefing to address a rash of gun violence across the state, noting deadly shootings that happened in Toledo, Akron and Cincinnati. He says 56 people have been shot across Ohio, including 17 who died, between August 14 and Aug. 20. That summer in Cincinnati, such headlines were nothing new.

marcella thompson
Becca Costello
Marcella Thompson (left) prays with Rodney Christian at an East Westwood Community Council meeting. In June, Thompson's 8-year-old son was shot twice - once in the head and the other in his leg - when gunfire erupted in the parking lot of a local market.

Earlier that month, Cincinnati's Assistant Police Chief Paul Neudigate told City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee there was a 36.6% increase in gun violence from the same period in 2019.

"If 2020 continues on the pace that it is, this will probably be the worst year for homicidal violence that we've had on record," he said, noting that numbers went up when the department changed its response plan because of the pandemic.

Too, throughout that summer demonstrations took place across the nation and locally to protest the police killing of George Floyd.

cincinnati george floyd protest
Jason Whitman
Attendees at a local protest in the summer of 2020 over the death of George Floyd.

In Cincinnati, the demonstrations were largely peaceful and photos show many wearing masks. Reporters on the ground witnessed organizers and demonstrators alike reminding people to stay six feet apart from other marchers.

"It was really scary, I'm not going to lie," Gabriela Godinez, a Cincinnati demonstrator, told WVXU in June. "I cried to my roommate the night before about it and she said, 'If your heart tells you you have to go, you have to go.'

"I know it sounds weird, but a pandemic almost feels small," she added. "People die every year because of racism."

cincinnati george floyd protest
Jason Whitman
A man carrying a wooden cross also wears a mask, gloves and glasses during a march near Music Hall as people continue to rally and protest the murder of George Floyd as the coronavirus pandemic continues, Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Cincinnati.

Educational, election and holiday disruptions

By October, many kids were back in the classroom, even if only virtually. At Cincinnati Public Schools, the school board made the first of what would be many back-and-forth decisions between in-person and remote learning during the 2020-21 school year.

On Oct. 14, the state broke its record for the highest daily increase in COVID-19 cases, with 2,039 new cases reported.

On Nov. 3, Ohio once again shattered its record for most COVID-19 cases in a single day — 4,229.

Meanwhile polls opened around Ohio for Election Day 2020.

A poll worker sanitizes a voting machine on Nov. 3, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio. Conspiracy theories floated by former President Donald Trump about equipment made by Dominion Voting Systems has led local officials in one Ohio County to slow down the purchase of new Dominion machines.
A poll worker sanitizes a voting machine on Nov. 3, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio.

With cases and hospitalizations rising in the region, Cincinnati closed City Hall in order to install air purifiers and additional dividers. At the state level, Gov. DeWine announced a statewide curfew to stop the spread of COVID-19, which would last for about three weeks.

Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, the Ohio Health Department's chief medical officer, warned that Ohioans should limit holiday gatherings to a small circle of people. He also expressed concern for a potential hospital staffing crisis as cases surge.

"The big fear is if we don't take the message of masking, distancing, and avoiding big groups seriously, Thanksgiving could result in our hospitals being overwhelmed," Vanderhoff said. "It's very serious. It's a matter of personal responsibility, and we owe it to each other."

Vaccines arrive

Just before Thanksgiving, DeWine said the state would get its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines around Dec. 15. On Dec. 14, the first vaccine injections were administered to hospital staff at The Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center and University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Eight more hospitals got vaccines the following day.

Katie Walz uc icu nurse receives her first covid shot
UC Health
Katie Walz, RN, in the cardiovascular ICU at UC Medical Center, was the first recipient of Pfizer's COVID vaccine.

Nearly a week before the Christmas holiday, the state surpassed the 8,000 death mark. It would reach 10,000 in January.

'The decision is very straightforward'

In January 2021, Hamilton County turned purple for the first time.

But the light at the end of the tunnel was in view.

In February, Gov. DeWine and his wife Fran received their first doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at the Kettering Health Network Rural Health Center in Jamestown. At age 74 and 73, respectively, both were eligible for the shot, according to the state's vaccination rollout plan.

When it was over, both DeWines got a lollipop.

mike dewine coronavirus shot
Courtesy of the Governor's Office

Before receiving his shot, the governor asked Dr. Kevin Sharrett what he tells those skeptical of the vaccine.

"The number one question I'm faced with is, 'I'm afraid of this vaccine,' " he said. " 'I'm afraid it's new. It's been developed very quickly; I'm concerned about side effects; I'm concerned about long term effects;' the list goes on and on. ... I tell patients this: at the end of the day, you have to decide — am I safer with the vaccine or am I safer with the virus? In my mind, the decision is very straightforward and very clear."

Later that month, DeWine ordered the flags of the United States and the state of Ohio be flown at half-mast at all public buildings and grounds in honor of the over 14,000 Ohioans who had so far died of COVID, just a fraction of the 500,000 coronavirus deaths nationwide at the time.

Back in Cincinnati, the annual St. Patrick's Day parade got canceled for a second consecutive year. "While this decision is difficult to make for the second year in a row, we appreciate and respect the times we all are living in now," a statement attributed to Chairman Schulte read.

A critical mass

On March 3, a Wednesday, Gov. DeWine's office said he had no immediate plans to lift the statewide mask order, despite recent decisions to do so in Texas and other states and calls from fellow Republicans like U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel. DeWine's office says the order, which took effect in July, will likely remain in place until the state reaches a "critical mass" of people who have been vaccinated.

In a statewide primetime address the following day, Gov. Mike DeWine declared that he would lift all COVID-19 public health orders when Ohio hits the benchmark of 50 new cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period.

That didn't happen until June, three months after Ohio opened 15 state-sponsored mass vaccination clinics, including at Xavier University's Cintas Center in Cincinnati.

cintas center vaccination clinic
Jason Whitman
Ohio residents looking to get vaccinated are seen at the Cintas Center at Xavier University. The Cintas Center is now functioning as a mass vaccination site in the wake of the COVID-9 pandemic, Thursday, March 18, 2021, in Cincinnati.

Now, in 2022 — two years after the impeachment of President Donald Trump and the election of Joe Biden; two years after Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation; two years after Ruth Bader Ginsburg died; and two years after COVID vaccines arrived — this is where Ohio stands since the pandemic began, according to the most recent data available:

  • 2.6 million total cases
  • 112,000+ hospitalizations
  • 13,200+ ICU admissions
  • 36,000+ deaths
  • 554,000,000 doses of a COVID vaccine given
  • 215,000,000 residents fully vaccinated

And on Monday, March 7, 2022, the global death toll from COVID eclipsed 6 million.