BY D’ARCY EGAN
Ottawa County and its neighbor to the west, Lucas County, are battling the COVID-19 pandemic, as are all of Ohio’s 88 counties. It’s not a secret that many who work in Lucas County prefer to live in rustic Ottawa County, where the population is far lower, life more idyllic with the lure of vacationland — Lake Erie, and its wonderful boating, fishing, hunting, hiking, parks and recreation — encouraging people to escape big city life.
What has beleaguered Toledo and Lucas County officials is that while Lucas County has a population of about 430,000, the county leads Ohio in COVID-19 deaths per capita, with 35 per 100,000 residents. The per capita fatalities are more than Franklin (Columbus); Cuyahoga (Cleveland); and Hamilton (Cincinnati), Ohio’s largest counties. Those highly populated counties have death rates of 5.5 to 11.39 deaths per 100,000 people.
Ottawa County, at the other end of the spectrum, has about 40,500 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and has had just two deaths, as of Monday. Lucas County had 165 deaths.
Have Ottawa County’s relatively low COVID-19 numbers triggered a complacency among those who live and work here? Does the virus not seem quite as dangerous in Ottawa County because of it?
With many summer residents back, followed by an expected flood of tourists, have the ResponsibleRestartOhio plans been put in place too soon?
We’re going to find out this week, as businesses, retail shops, bars and restaurants open their doors for the summer crowds. A tour in recent days of local shopping areas, boat launch ramps, marinas and heavily populated summer communities revealed that too many residents and visitors were not complying with Ohio’s pandemic rules designed to protect the health of the community.
They’re not wearing masks, they are gathering in groups and they seem oblivious to the important 6-foot social distancing rule.
One of the safest places to avoid the virus this spring had been the Lake Erie Islands, because mainlanders were not allowed to visit. Officials had all but shut down Put-in-Bay. Island bars, restaurants, hotels, motels and other attractions had not opened because of social restrictions. Summer residents were told they had to quarantine for 14 days as they arrived.
Island officials accepted the pause caused by the pandemic, and told everyone to stay home for now, that it would be worth the wait. It was absolutely the right thing to do for an island community that had no amenities, or medical protection.
Gov. Mike DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton, the head of the Ohio Department of Health, opened general offices, distribution centers, manufacturers and construction companies on Monday, May 4. Last Thursday, May 7, DeWine and Dr. Acton lifted travel restrictions on Miller Boat Line ferry trips, which began on Monday, May 11.
Retail stores, consumer and service businesses around the state were back in business on Tuesday, May 12. Ohio’s restaurants and bars were allowed to open patios on Friday, May 15, with dine-in options to begin Thursday, May 21.
Out-of-state anglers were again allowed to buy fishing licenses on Friday, May 8. Lake Erie fishing charters were given the green light to launch on Tuesday, May 12.
With ResponsibleRestartOhio leading the way, expect the summer population around Ottawa County to quickly increase, thanks to the amazing walleye fishing, warm weather, cabin fever and the perceived safety of the small towns.
“As we open up, the risks go up,” admitted DeWine. “The more contacts we have, the more we do, there is more risk.” DeWine reiterated that opening businesses is a new game, a new journey, marked with danger signs.
The bars and restaurants are going to have determine how to make customers abide by the 6-foot social distancing rule between tables. Businesses must restrict gatherings of more than 10 people. Unfortunately, while employees must wear masks, DeWine is allowing customers to choose whether or not to wear them.
Too many are already choosing not to wear them, or practice social distancing or avoiding groups of 10 or more. Those are the ones most likely to cause a resurgence in positive COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths — and the possibility of a return to closures and strict regulations.