County commissioners relax some Covid precautions while awaiting state guidance next month

The flag of Portage County. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

Rather than setting an end date for Covid restrictions in county offices, commissioners decided on Thursday to follow CDC guidelines while anticipating Governor Mike DeWine’s June 2 Covid announcement ending Ohio health orders.

As of now, in accordance with the Ohio Department of Health’s May 17 orders, employees and people visiting various county offices may wear masks or not, according to their preference. Previously, employees and the public were asked to wear masks and to social distance “even though we couldn’t make them do it,” Commissioner Vicki Kline said.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, DeWine is poised to remove health orders on June 2. “Ohio will be amending our remaining health orders to comply with new CDC guidance, which says that those who have been vaccinated no longer need to wear masks, while those who have not been vaccinated should still wear masks and socially distance,” the May 17 press release states. The June 2 date is to give people time to get vaccinated, the governor said.

How it plays out in real time, in real life, is not so clear. 

“If you’re fully vaccinated, you do not have to wear a mask in our buildings, but we’re not allowed to ask legally to see their vaccination [card]. It’s totally on the honor system,” Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett said.

As far as the county administration building goes, “we’re not stopping, we’re not asking [if people are vaccinated],” Internal Services Director JoAnn Townend said.

Commissioners said asking if people are vaccinated would be a violation of the HIPAA privacy law. (This is not true, however. HIPAA does not apply to this situation.)

The commissioners may also rescind the 10-person limit in their public meeting room and may remove the plexiglass barriers in place at the commissioners’ table. Those decisions will be made next week, Commissioner Tony Badalamenti said, adding that the barriers in all county departments will be stored for later use, if necessary.

The revised policy only goes so far. Elected officials may still opt to have their employees mask up. That would include the county auditor, clerk of courts, judges, coroner, engineer, prosecutor, recorder, sheriff and treasurer.

The county’s pandemic leave policy remains in place, with full-time employees getting up to 80 hours of paid time off for Covid-related needs, such as child care, vaccine reactions or illness.

A temporary telework policy will also remain in place, though commissioners will revisit all county Covid policies after the governor’s June 2 announcement.

Acceding to a request from the Ravenna Chamber of Commerce, the courthouse lawn may also be used for community activities again, effective immediately, commissioners agreed. Throughout the pandemic, public gatherings had been discontinued there and throughout the county.