Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is getting high marks for his no-nonsense approach to the coronavirus crisis gripping the country.
The Republican rang the alarm early, didn’t wait for Washington to notice and took dramatic steps to shut down much of his state before the pandemic could overrun it. In turn, DeWine seems to have headed off the worst-case scenario playing out in New York and New Jersey. His daily press briefings have been appointment viewing for Ohioans and C-SPAN aficionados alike. And at age 73, the former Congressman, Senator and state Attorney General has never had such a promising a political future with even Ohio Democrats begrudgingly praising his command of the situation.
The veteran politician took a break from briefings and budget calls this past weekend to speak with TIME as he walked around his farm near Dayton, Ohio, with his new puppy. Although his state now has about 6,600 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 274 deaths, DeWine argues it could have been far worse had he waited any longer. DeWine summoned the experts and then heeded their advice even as it threatened his political popularity.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
You were the first Governor in the country to announce the entire state school system would close, starting on March 16. You’ve been a step ahead of us on other things: advising no spectators at indoor sporting events, calling on universities to go to remote instruction, closing bars and restaurants. Did you know something other Governors didn’t?
Well, I have a very good health director, Dr. Amy Acton. She has been keeping me informed about what was coming. I think that what I’ve tried to do throughout this is just get the best information I could, talk to the scientists, talk to the medical professionals. I have spent 40 years in public office and the mistakes I’ve made are generally when I didn’t have enough information, didn’t talk to the right people, didn’t drill down to get all the facts. I think that has served me well during this because we’ve just been really focused on trying to find out everything that we could. And the one message I kept getting from the people I was talking to, who really understood these pandemics, is you have to move quickly and you have to move early. That even delaying a few days can make a huge amount of difference.
I think also we had an event that really forced us to make a decision and that was the Arnold Classic. And it was a tough decision to close it because I know I was not aware at least of anybody else in the country shutting down of a major event like that. But again, we listened to the experts, talked with them. And it just didn’t make sense to have 60,000 people from 80 countries come into Columbus for a four-day event and be in close quarters. We just felt it was a recipe for disaster. And so we took that action. It was not easy because no one had really done this before, but I just weighed it out. What I felt was, it was a matter of life and death, that we were protecting human life and we had to act. And so we did that. And then very quickly after that we got into the issue of the NCAA, the play-off games, the first two nights were going to be in Dayton, Ohio. So we had to make a decision about that. And we also had high school athletics tournaments going on. So we just kind of went from one decision to another and tried to weigh all the facts and we came out where we did.
You’ve signaled schools might open in May. Is that still realistic?
Well, I’ve made it clear to everyone: schools may not open at all this year, right? But we just wanted to not lock us in, to have some flexibility as we see how this pandemic develops. And, so, we pushed everything. We kept the schools closed to May 1. We then also came in with the essential businesses until May 1. So we’ll review this during the month of April and see where we go.
Your daily briefing has zero sugarcoating on it. Tell me why.
I want people to have confidence in what we say and because I think getting through something like this, it’s important that the Governor has credibility. The first press conference we did about this we did in Cleveland, and I said that throughout this Dr. Acton and I will tell you what we know, when we know it. That’s what we’ve tried to do. As the modeling was changing, we told them what we had, we told them the information we were getting. And the modeling has changed. And, to a large extent, that is because of what the people of the state did. I just felt that it wasn’t the orders that I put on that were so important. What was really important what people did. And it was important for them to buy-in and to understand what we were doing, what we were asking them to do.
Your briefings could not be more different than the ones we see at the White House with President Trump. Any advice for him on those?
No, I think we have different roles. I think, historically, Governors have dealt with health crises: tornadoes, hurricanes, floods. I think the President’s roles are different roles. I mean, his is more aspirational when he says we’d love to be open soon. I know he’s gotten some criticism, but the truth is we all would like to be open soon. As the President, I think the more aspirational is a fine role. My role as Governor is just a different role and it is to take the people Ohio through what we think we’re going to have to do.
You’re the Governor of a state that has to pass a balanced budget and you’re seeing public health costs go up as tax revenue goes down. How are you handling this?
Well, we are on two-year budget cycle, so we’ve got 15 months left. But we have to balance the budget. We’re going to announce cuts next week, which I was working on today. And there’s no choice but to make significant cuts. As everyone knows, when you have a downturn in the economy, two things happen: revenues go down and costs go up. So we’ve got to make the tough decisions.
Are you getting everything you need from Washington?
Every time I’ve asked the White House for something they have come through. It was two weekends ago, I called the President on Sunday morning because we were just having trouble with the FDA approving Battelle’s new process. That was a big deal for us. They can do up to [tens of thousands of] masks a day, sterilizing them. We’ve never had the personal protective equipment that we need, the same way most states just don’t have it. Being able to get this done was very important. The President picked up the phone and he got their attention and then they went through the process and we got it done that day. The Vice President has been helpful.
As we look to the future after we get through with this, I think there’s two big lessons for all of us. One is we never want to be in a position where key things like personal protection equipment is made outside the United States and we don’t have a big enough capacity to make it; having essential medical equipment made outside the United States and not enough inside the United States is something we can’t let happen again. The other lesson is we all—the states, federal government, everybody—we have to invest more every year in public health. We don’t invest enough, and we need to do that. Those are kinds of the big takeaways from this, after we get through it and after we get back to where we want to be.
Do you have access to enough kits right now in Ohio and are enough people being tested?
No. No to both. Although we’re making some serious progress. Ohio State, the Cleveland Clinic, University of Cincinnati, their capacity has gone up dramatically. Our problem now is in regard to the smaller hospitals and the smaller places, making sure they got the swabs that they need, the tubes to put the swabs in, the liquid that goes in there. These are all problems that I think every state is having. We’re standing up some groups that are producing these. Ohio State and our health department have gone together and they’re really starting to churn out some of the swabs and other things that we need for the testing. The testing is going up. It needs to go up a lot more if we’re going to be able to manage our recovery. It remains a challenge but it’s a lot better than it was a week ago, it’s a lot better than it was two weeks ago. We’re moving in the right direction, but we’ve got the same problems everybody’s got.
We could hear protesters outside your briefing on Thursday, April 9. Folks want to reopen business. How are you managing that backlash?
I fully understand their feelings. I think the thing everyone needs to understand, though, is this economy is not going to come back if people are afraid to go out. So no matter what order I put on, or don’t put on, what we have to do is feed people’s confidence that we can protect them. And we’re putting together a plan, as I know other states are, about how we start to reopen. And it’s based on testing. It’s based on tracing. It’s based on figuring out who has already had it. So that’s what’s going to give people confidence and that’s what’s going to allow our economy to come back. It’s not like I can walk out and turn a switch on, and everything comes back because even if I would walk out tomorrow and say, ‘OK, all the orders, no more orders, do whatever you want to do.’ That doesn’t solve the problem.
If people fear for their life, they’re not going to spend money, they’re not going to go out to eat, they’re not going to go to a ball game, they’re not going to do all the things that we all would want to do
It seems like the federal response and the state’s responses haven’t always been in tandem. Is this a time where we might want to rethink the states’ rights argument?
Historically, I think you look to Governors to deal with the local disaster. Now, obviously this is a worldwide disaster. We’re seeing this pandemic at different stages in different states. It just makes sense that these decisions get made locally, made by the Governor. We’ve got 113 local health departments, right? We could’ve let these decisions be made 113 different places. It just didn’t make sense to me.
There are still Governors who haven’t done statewide orders. What are they thinking?
I can’t speak for other governors. They may think that people are being pretty cautious anyway and that the order is redundant, but I don’t know that. Everybody’s got different circumstance. I might approach it differently if I represented a different state, but Ohio is a state of close to 12 million people. We’ve got a number of major urban centers.
What in this crisis has left you completely gobsmacked?
We have had an amazing group of people who have just stepped up in Ohio to do things. And I guess that really doesn’t shock me because I’ve seen Ohioans do it during floods, I’ve seen them do it during tornadoes. We’ve had, for example, people who have just come in, who volunteered out of the private sector to help us source material. I had someone come out of a previous Democratic administration, who had a high role in the previous Governor’s administration, who volunteered. She’s done an absolutely phenomenal job every single day sourcing the things that we have to ask to buy.
So many people have stepped up and done what they need to do. Look at our teachers. Our teachers are all having to teach from a distance. That’s not easy. Some of them never did that and they’re figured out ways to do it. Ohioans are resourceful. They’re hard-working. It’s one of the take-aways, I believe, from this.
You talk about that bipartisanship. Would you serve in a Biden administration?
Well, I’m very focused on being Governor. I love the job of Governor. I’m not looking to serve in anybody’s administration.
A lot of us have used this unexpected time to read and stream shows that we just had not seen before. Have you had a moment just to step away from this?
We really haven’t. What we’ve done is stayed at our farm, which is an hour from Columbus. This has been so all consuming that it’s literally been seven days a week. I mean, the only book I’ve actually read was the book written about the 1918 pandemic, [John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History]. That’s been very helpful. There’s a lot of lessons that come out of there.