Gov. Mike DeWine signed House Bill 197 into law last Friday offering temporary emergency relief in response to the COVID-19 health emergency. The bill includes a wide variety of changes ranging from education to healthcare to utilities, all tools to mitigate the impact of the contagious and deadly virus sweeping Ohio and the nation.

Perhaps one of the most anticipated provisions of the bill extended the March 17 primary election through April 28. There will be absentee voting only and ballots must be postmarked by April 27, according to the bill. The vote was unanimous in both the House and Senate, although Gov. DeWine wanted the election on June 2.

“This bill passed bipartisan. I want to thank the legislature for stepping up,” Gov. DeWine said in a press conference on March 27. “This continues a great tradition of everyone working together and I’m very grateful to them for doing that.”

State Sen. Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, co-sponsored the bill and said that legislators sought to meet the needs of every individual in Ohio. Many of the changes are related to education to protect students and their families.

The bill freezes EdChoice eligibility. Lawmakers were expected to work out the kinks of an EdChoice expansion, which would make around 1,200 school buildings across the state eligible for vouchers. The EdChoice application opens on April 1 but this bill keeps lawmakers from making changes to the current eligibility requirements.

According to Sen. Dolan, other aspects of HB 197 allows school districts to continue delivering meals to students, ensuring continuity as the school year ends and the summer begins.

“We needed to make sure that the students who need meals get them,” he said on March 25. “We made changes to the school lunch program so students can get school lunches even though it’s not in person.”

Gov. DeWine closed kindergarten through 12th-grade schools until May 1 in an effort to protect students and staff from being exposed to the highly contagious and deadly coronavirus. He is considering keeping buildings closed through the end of the academic year.

As requested by the governor, the General Assembly waived K-12 standardized testing and state report cards for the 2019-20 school year. Seniors will still be allowed to graduate if they are deemed eligible by their school.

Sen. Dolan said that there are several healthcare related changes in HB 197. The Ohio Board of Nursing is closed, which licenses nurses to practice in the medical field. This bill allows the agency to issue temporary permits of competency to allow nurses who have recently graduated to quickly join the workforce, he said. In addition, the bill waives the rehire waiting time for critical agency workers who recently retired.

The legislature also approved several provisions for unemployment benefits.

“We codified the governor’s order on unemployment compensation,” Sen. Dolan said. “We made changes there to expand who is eligible.”

Specifically, the legislature waived the first week waiting period before applying for unemployment, changed the eligibility to include workers affected by the coronavirus and waived the work search requirement, according to HB 197.

Sen. Dolan said that the bill bans public water disconnections during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio already banned utility disconnections, but it does not regulate water.

Other changes include extending the tax filing deadline to July 15 and allowing public bodies such as city councils and school boards to meet electronically as long as the public is notified in advance. The legislature also extended the validity of licenses since most Bureau of Motor Vehicles locations are closed, according to the bill.

“This is a time that you have to put people over partisanship,” state Rep. Juanita Brent, D-Cleveland, said on March 25. “All Ohioans are at stake if we don’t act on this seriously.”

In addition to the multitude of changes in HB 197, Rep. Brent said that she was advocating for a sanitation process for stores. She noted that customers are still touching commodities and carts despite employers’ attempts to keep a clean facility.

Rep. Brent sought an amendment to encourage hygiene with visual and audio aspects, such as an audio reel reminding people to wash their hands when they enter a hospital. She also said that shopping carts need to be sanitized. Rep. Brent’s proposal was not included in the final version of the bill.

Julie Hullett has been a reporter for the Chagrin Valley Times since August of 2018 and covers Gates Mills, Hunting Valley, Moreland Hills, Orange, Pepper Pike and Woodmere. She graduated from John Carroll University with a journalism degree in 2018.

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