Bill Would Allow More Businesses To Stay Open During A Pandemic

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Over a year ago, the government forced thousands of Ohio businesses to close their doors in response to the pandemic. But others were allowed to stay open because they were deemed essential.

Many business owners felt the process of choosing which businesses were essential was unfair and left small businesses in particular at a disadvantage. Senate Bill 134, or the Business Fairness Act, would change this. Under the bill, any business that follows the prescribed health and safety requirements may remain open during a pandemic or bioterrorism event.

The bill was introduced by Republican state Sen. George Lang and is co-sponsored by senators from both parties. The bill has already passed unanimously through the Senate and is working its way through the House.

The shutdowns resulted in situations where some small businesses were forced to close while larger stores that sold the same merchandise were allowed to remain open, said Kevin Boehner, the director of small business and workforce policy for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, who testified in support of the bills. 

“You know, a small jewelry store that had to close but yet you could go to Meijer and buy jewelry there,” Boehner said. 

The bill’s proponents say the decisions shouldn’t be based on the size of the business or what it sells but on its compliance with health and safety rules.

“We felt that, regardless of what type of business you are, if you can meet the safety standards, which we think a lot of our small businesses were capable of doing, then you should have the opportunity to stay open,” said Alex Boehnke, the manager of public affairs for the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants. Boehnke has also testified in support of the bill on behalf of his organization’s more than 7,000 members.

Although this bill would help business owners, public health officials worry it will not keep people safe. Athens City-County Health Commissioner Dr. James Gaskell worries it would make it harder for public health officials to do their job. .

“We need to be directed by the science. We don’t want to have public health inhibited from acting appropriately in the face of serious illness,” he said. 

Boehnke said he agrees with the importance of protecting public health and assured that this bill would not let businesses operate recklessly. 

“That doesn’t mean that if you’re not making efforts to keep people safe that you should just stay open and shouldn‘t face any consequences,” he said. 

Gaskell said he understands the struggles Ohio residents faced due to closures but he believes it needed to happen. 

“I think what we have to look at is the outcome,” he said. “The economy in the state of Ohio is recovering and is going to recover. And we did not nearly have as high of mortality rate as some states who did not close down.”

The bill includes an emergency provision that would have it take effect immediately if passed.