Pandemic unmasks growing political divide

Amanda Garrett
 
| Akron Beacon Journal

Second of four-part series.

It looked like a scene out of a zombie apocalypse movie.

The Columbus Dispatch photo showed about 100 protesters smashed up against the windows of the Ohio Statehouse on April 13, pounding the glass and screaming for Gov. Mike DeWine to end the pandemic stay-at-home order.

The order was initially set to expire April 6, but extended to May 1 as COVID-19 continued to spread.

Some protesters carried American flags, others wore Donald Trump hats and one held a sign that said, “The Cure is Worse than the Virus.”

Few wore masks, even though the CDC and state officials had changed course and said everyone should wear a mask in public because science showed masks were one of the best ways to stop the spread of the virus.

DeWine, who said we were at “war” with the pandemic, repeatedly emphasized that Ohioans were in the fight together.

But less than a month into the crisis, many Ohioans were fighting with each other over the virus and state mandates.

As the virus ravaged nursing homes and urban areas, a growing chorus of Ohio’s Republican lawmakers — many representing rural areas that had not yet felt the deadly ramifications of the pandemic — wanted DeWine to set a date for the first phases of reopening businesses, schools and public places.

You’ve seen the photo of Ohio protesters: Here’s the story behind it.

“We can’t stay like this much longer, and the hundreds of thousands of Ohioans who’ve lost their jobs or the thousands of small business owners can’t keep doing this either, or their lives will be irreparably destroyed,” Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Delaware, wrote in a Facebook post.

Yet the things that health officials said they needed to help stop the spread of the disease were not fully in place. 

A vaccine was still more than a year away for most people, PPE shortages continued and COVID-19 testing remained elusive as hospitals and health care systems scrambled to invent, collaborate and cajole suppliers to expand and speed up testing.

By mid-April, the state reported 6,975 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 275 deaths in Ohio. But many suspected those numbers were much higher because there was still so little testing being done.

In Copley, Robin Kuppusamy’s husband and four children, ages 14, 12, 10 and 8, all had fevers just under 100 degrees. One of her husband’s office colleagues at a large local manufacturer had tested positive for COVID-19 and she wondered if her family was infected.

Kuppusamy said everyone in her family felt body aches, sort of like the flu, but deeper. “Our knees hurt,” she said. They were also so exhausted, it was hard to walk their dog.

The Ohio Department of Health and a local hospital told her no one in Ohio under age 65 was being tested for COVID-19.

“Mentally, staying at home away from everyone is hard,” she said in an email. “It’s even harder when you realize if you do die, you won’t even make it in the count.”

‘The pain is real’: Business struggles

Meanwhile, businesses, particularly small businesses, were fighting to survive.

“The pain is real,” said Steve Millard, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Akron Chamber.

More than 1,500 businesses applied for only 250 $5,000 relief grants under a program put together by Summit County, the chamber and other partners. Hundreds more applications came in after the filing deadline. 

Fred Karm, founder of Akron’s Hoppin’ Frog Brewery, said his business fell by 80%.

The tasting room’s kitchen was closed, but Hoppin’ Frog, like other bars and restaurants, was selling takeout beer under new state rules passed during the pandemic. 

Karm, like many Ohioans, tuned in to DeWine’s daily 2 p.m. news conferences, which had earned the nickname Wine with DeWine since many huddled around computer screens daily, often with drinks in hand for pandemic updates.

Karm said his staff of 25 was counting on him to do what is right during the pandemic.

“I’m trying to follow the experts and facts,” he said. “I’m not following gut instincts.”

Reopening to a new normal

By April 27, Ohio’s soft lockdown was working. 

Though COVID-19 continued to spread — Ohio had recorded more than 15,000 cases and 711 deaths — Ohioans had helped flatten the curve and DeWine announced that the state would start to gradually reopen.

Manufacturing restarted May 4, followed by many stores May 12.

Shoppers were waiting.

“I had Harley withdrawal,” said Brian Lee, a 61-year-old Stow resident and longtime motorcycle rider who wandered the showroom of Rubber City Harley-Davidson within hours of the dealership reopening.

At Rubber City Harley, there was a hand-sanitizing station just inside the front door and tape on the floor to remind people where to stand to maintain social distancing.

When retailers were forced to close in March, Rubber City Harley kept just four to five employees working, manager Tom Johnson said. 

But on May 12, the store brought in at least 20 employees, all wearing mandatory masks.

“There’s pent-up demand for our product,” Johnson said.

Ohio’s mask confusion

As some Ohio businesses began to reopen, anger over others remaining closed seemed to grow. Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, took the brunt of it.

Protesters, some armed, had been demonstrating outside the Ohio Statehouse for weeks. But on May 2, a small group showed up outside Acton’s home in Bexley. 

“Dr. Amy Over-Re-Acton Hairstylists are Essential,” one woman’s sign read, an apparent reference to the ongoing closure of Ohio salons and barbershops.

In coming days, other protests at Acton’s home followed and included two members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group and at least one protester carrying a sign with an anti-Semitic trope. Acton is Jewish.

While doctors and scientists universally agreed at this point that masks would help stop the spread of COVID-19, some politicians, including President Donald Trump, said they were unnecessary.

On top of that, there was confusion over mask requirements in Ohio.

DeWine initially said reopening businesses must require employees and customers to wear masks, but he later backed off that mandate.

The state in mid-May said it would not require customers to wear masks, but businesses could deny service to those who did not wear masks, much like many convenience stores already do for those not wearing shirts or shoes.

Unemployed and waiting in Ohio

Others, meanwhile, were just trying to scrape by.

The pandemic — which had so far killed 1,021 Ohioans and more than 66,000 Americans — exposed gaping holes in the safety nets that are supposed to protect U.S. workers during tough times.

Christina Stevenson of Akron was among thousands of Ohioans who had yet to receive jobless benefits in May, two months after the pandemic started.

Stevenson styled hair at Northwest Akron’s Tru Kream Beauty Bar. She had a side business making wigs in a space she rented in downtown Akron’s Evans Building. And, to prepare for her future, she was studying chemical engineering in her junior year at the University of Akron.

But the pandemic ended her streams of income.

“Everything I was sure of, I’m no longer sure of,” Stevenson said. “I always told myself that my wig business was my fallback plan. In times like these, I can’t even fall back on my fallback plan.”

Stevenson, like other self-employed, independent contractors or gig workers, didn’t qualify for traditional unemployment. And the federal aid that was  supposed to help workers like her — Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA — wasn’t available in Ohio until after mid-May.

So far, more than 1.1 million Ohioans — or about 18% of the workforce — had filed for unemployment benefits, overwhelming the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services’ computer system and staff, who are trying to process as many claims in two months as they usually do over more than two years.

Though state officials said they were starting to catch up, numbers released at the end of April showed Ohio had so far paid out more than $1.45 billion to about 481,000 claimants — less than half of those who applied.

And none of those paid included people like Stevenson, who were waiting on federally funded PUA.

Pandemic Al Fresco

It was raining on and off May 15, the day Ohio’s restaurants were allowed to reopen outdoor dining.

 At the Upper Deck in Portage Lakes, Jane Heim sat at a table with a group of friends who all went to Akron’s Garfield High School.

They women usually get together once a month, but hadn’t seen each other since February.

“It’s a relief … that there’s hope that we’re going to be able to enjoy things this summer and still practice social distancing,” Heim said.

To reopen, the state mandated that restaurants reconfigure outdoor seating to allow for at least 6 feet or barriers between parties. That reduced seating at the Upper Deck by about 30%. But there was still space for 200 people, said James House, co-owner of waterfront gathering spot, who was wearing a shirt saying, “The bigger the deck, the bigger the party.” 

“Everybody is social distancing … We’re requiring people to sit down for the most part to maintain social distancing,” House said that afternoon.

But as night fell and the weekend unfolded, the Upper Deck and other Ohio bar decks and patios began to fill with people who had been cooped up at home for weeks. Many were unmasked and ignoring social distancing.

Summit County Public Health was flooded with more than 100 complaints that weekend. At least a dozen of those were against Upper Deck, mostly about the bar having too many people on its deck, which is one of the largest in the county.

New Franklin police also were called to the Upper Deck once on Friday and three times on Saturday for social-distancing complaints.

By Monday, DeWine had seen pictures and heard complaints about crowded bars across Ohio. He warned restaurant and bar owners they could lose their liquor licenses or face criminal charges if they didn’t comply with state pandemic requirements.

He also beefed up the state’s 70-member investigative unit, which polices liquor laws and told bar patrons they had a responsibility, too.

“If you don’t worry about yourself,” he said, “worry about your mom, your dad, your grandparents … strangers.”

Demands for racial justice

The video was horrifying and heartbreaking.

It showed George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, dying as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, even after Floyd said he couldn’t breathe.

America, reeling from a new deadly pandemic, faced another crisis when Floyd died May 25.

Protests erupted across the country and welled up in Akron five days later as a diverse crowd of more than 1,000 people gathered in front of the police station downtown and demanded reforms and racial justice.

Todd Burros, 59, said protests like this had happened his whole life and that his younger peers needed to stand up if they wanted change.

“The Founding Fathers did not kneel down and beg to be free,” he said. “They fought to be free.”

As Akron police stood in front of the station to guard it, Mayor Dan Horrigan stepped forward and told protesters “you should be pissed off about what’s going on.”

“There’s not a single person across the country that saw what’s going on and likes it,” Horrigan said in a speech to protesters. “Believe me. I don’t like it either.”

Then he handed out masks to limit the spread of COVID-19, though many of the protesters were already wearing them. 

A series of other protests followed downtown, in other Akron neighborhoods and in suburbs from Medina to Kent.

In Copley, where a Cleveland Clinic Akron General doctor had been hanging handmade banners offering hope and inspiration to her neighbors during the pandemic, the focus changed.

Dr. Ann Leano put up a new banner in her mostly white neighborhood showing a Black hand holding a white hand, forming a heart.

When her neighbor, Emily Cropper first saw it, she stood in Leano’s driveway and teared up. 

Cropper’s husband, Nathan, is Black and she is white.

“The George Floyd incident is a reminder that the grief the Floyd family is facing could have easily been us and our family,” Cropper said.

Summer canceled by COVID-19

By the first week of June, Ohio’s unemployment rate remained in double digits. Many blue-collar and service-sector employees — including large swaths of Black and immigrant workers in Akron — were back to work, while many white-collar employees continued working safely from home.

Ohio still didn’t have enough COVID-19 tests for everyone who wanted one, but the state had confirmed 37,758 cases and 2,355 deaths.

And the U.S. passed a grim milestone: 100,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Organizers of some of Akron’s oldest and largest summer events decided the risk was too much. 

Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in Akron, canceled its 85th anniversary Founders Day celebration, expected to bring about 10,000 people to Greater Akron in mid-June, and instead moved the event online.

And for the first time since World War II, the All-American Soap Box Derby announced it was taking a hiatus in its 83rd year.

“It was really, really difficult to have to cancel,” said Mark Gerberich, derby president and CEO. “This is the right thing to do. Safety is paramount.”

Amy Acton quits

Dr. Amy Acton, who drew both increasing admiration and ire as people’s reaction to the coronavirus split along political lines, stunned Ohioans the second week of June when she resigned as director of the Ohio Health Department.

During the pandemic, Acton had risen from obscurity to a household name in Ohio, a fixture during Wine with DeWine. While the governor explained policy, Acton explained the science behind the policy, using everyday language and empathy.

Acton earned praise in national media, had her own fan club and an animator who lives in Stow, Dave Stofka, produced a video and theme song for her and DeWine based on the 1970s TV sitcom “Laverne & Shirley.” 

In the animated video, DeWine and Acton make their way through a factory producing Purell hand sanitizer, which is owned by Akron-based GOJO, as others sing:

“Give us any cure, we’ll take it,” 

“Offer us your hand, won’t shake it. We’re going to make our state pull through.” 

Acton said no single moment prompted her decision to step down. 

But Acton was worried she might be forced to sign health orders that would violate the doctor’s oath to do no harm amid pressure from Republican lawmakers to fully reopen the state during the pandemic.

DeWine, a Republican, said Acton would continue to advise him on public health after her resignation, calling her a hero who saved many lives.

Rites of passage for the Class of 2020

The pandemic stole the class of 2020’s last three months of high school, their senior prom and everything that normally defines that rite of passage.

But graduations went on.

In her white cap and gown and with her beaming father at the edge of the stage, Buchtel high school valedictorian Drew Oliver began her speech. 

“Needless to say, our senior year did not unfold how we expected,” Oliver said, speaking into a video camera instead of in front of a crowd. 

DeWine gave Ohio school districts three graduation options: online videos, drive-in or in-person events of 10 or fewer people.

Akron Public Schools, along with many other districts, opted for a video-recorded ceremony.

In Cuyahoga Falls, families and friends added a “honk out” parade at Blossom Music Center, where graduates and guests made noise from inside their decorated vehicles. 

Switching to a videotaped speech was a relief to Akron North valedictorian Alisha Tamang, who had been nervous about speaking in front of a crowd.

Alisha, who resettled in the U.S. with her family as a refugee from Nepal when she was 7, didn’t know what a valedictorian was until she was named one.

North Hill, where many Bhutanese live, had been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

Asian residents make up just under 4% of the Summit County population but by June accounted for nearly 20% of coronavirus cases in the county, according to Summit County Public Health data.

Alisha focused her commencement speech on how to push past the sadness around the graduation they should have had in nonpandemic times and other sadness in life.

“It might not turn out how you expected, just like this graduation,” she said. “But it’s OK. It will be a unique experience that you can learn and grow from, even if it does not look like what you imagined.

“And other people might look at your life and think it looks like a movie.”

COVID-19 anniversary series

This is the second of a four-part series on the anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Northeast Ohio. For more the complete series visit: 

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