CINCINNATI — Mayor Aftab Pureval announced a state of emergency Wednesday as COVID-19 cases and virus-related hospitalizations continue to go up in communities across the greater Cincinnati region.

What You Need To Know

  • The state of emergency requires masks to be worn by everyone in common areas of public buildings and facilities

  • The mandate is in place for 30 days but can be extended 

  • Mayor Pureval said the aim to ensure staff is available to perform essential services

  • The city also said they aim to be a model of best practices for private employers, businesses throughout the region

​The declaration requires all persons, regardless of their vaccination status, to wear a mask while inside City Hall or any other city facility. The rule affects city employees, but also contractors and any visitors or guests.

There are exceptions for things such as private work areas and there are also certain health or safety considerations. First responders, for instance, don’t have to wear a mask when they’re actively responding to a public safety or medical situation.

Pureval said the goal is to slow the spread of COVID-19 among city staff and reduce the risk of contagion between not only city employees, but also the public.

The policy was also penned as a model for “best practices for private employers and businesses throughout the region,” according to a memo on the topic City Manager Paula Boggs Muething sent to department directors.

The mask mandate will expire 30 days from Wednesday unless the city chooses to extend it.

"This is a necessary measure to protect lives and ensure that the city staff is safe and able to get to work," Pureval said at a press conference.

Up until Wednesday unvaccinated city employees, or those who have chosen not to share their vaccination status, have had to continue to wear masks at city facilities. They’ve also had to get tested biweekly. The testing component will continue.

But the city’s administration made the decision to reenact its mask mandate due to a rapid uptick in local cases of COVID-19. Many of the current issues Cincinnati and communities across Ohio are experiencing are attributable to the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID.

Cincinnati Health Commissioner Melba Moore said the city’s most recent positivity testing rate came back at more than 16%.

Between Dec. 1, 2021 and Jan. 11, 2022, 700 city employees have tested positive for COVID-19. In the same time period, 333 employees were asked to quarantine.

As of Tuesday, about 60 were positive for COVID-19, and another 61 were in isolation, Boggs Muething said. The city has about 6,000 total employees spread across its various departments.

Those numbers may not seem that large but the city said it’s enacting these new measures to keep things from getting worse.

In her memo, Boggs Muething wrote that the surge in community spread has led to a “dramatic” uptick in positivity among employees at city facilities. She wrote that if that rate of contagion continues to increase, the city may face staffing shortages across departments and services.

Like many other institutions and organizations, the city of Cincinnati has a vaccination policy for employees.

Currently, 71% of city employees are vaccinated, Boggs Muething stated Wednesday. The city does not currently require employees to receive a booster, but Boggs Muething encouraged them to get one.

“Getting the vaccine, getting tested, and staying masked saves lives. When our hospitals are at maximum capacity, Cincinnati lives are at risk,” Pureval said. “With this emergency order, we are taking action to slow the spread and ensure our city can provide the services we all depend on.”

A day before the masking changes, the city manager’s office and the city’s Department of Human Resources met with the leadership of the city’s four primary labor unions – American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); Cincinnati Organized and Dedicated Employees, Inc. (CODE); International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 48 and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 69.

Dan Hils, president of FOP 69, which represents Cincinnati Police Department officers, said he doesn’t have strong feelings about the city’s decision to implement the mask mandate. He said he just wants to make sure it’s applied fairly.

“I don't care what they want to do as long as it's uniform across the board. They can make us all wear a duck beak, or something, or whatever they want to, as long as it’s equal,” he said.

Over the last year Hils has been quite vocal about his displeasure with that policy. He said that he feels the city has treated those who’ve been vaccinated differently than those who haven’t, citing things like the time-off policy for those who get sick or are exposed.

He called masks “political theater.”

“I really don't believe that masks make much of a difference, if any at all. But I'm less bothered by this mandate than I am by the continued treatment of the unvaccinated,” he said.

Pureval has been shy about expressing his views on the need for another public mask mandate since he took over as mayor on Jan. 4. He said he would listen to the advice of leading public health officials, such as those at the Cincinnati Health Department and hospitals.

Several of them surrounded him Wednesday, including Moore, John Ward from Bethesda North Hospital and Julie Holt, the chief nursing officer at the Christ Hospital Health Network.

COVID-related deaths peaked across the state in December 2020 at as high as 200 on a given day before dipping down into the single or low double-digits for several months. Ohio Department of Health data shows those numbers have started to creep back up and are now sometimes back over 100 a day.

"Over 100 people a day are dying. That's like two-plus bus crashes every day with no survivors,” Ward said.

The region’s hospitals are facing emergency conditions due to the high rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations mixed with other serious conditions. Nearly all beds are full, Ward added.

Holt, who’s also a registered nurse, said medical staff are burned out. They said in addition to being short-staffed, the rapid influx of patients has affected the number of patients each nurse has to work with and the quality of care they’re able to provide.

"When nurse-to-patient ratios go up, we are limited in the care that we are able to provide, so things, like baths and linen changes, and some of the nice things that we like to do for our patients, we cannot do," she said.

Pureval and Moore will join Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus and Hamilton County Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman on a weekly call with The Health Collaborative.

On Tuesday, Hamilton County issued a state of emergency of its own. It’s mostly an administrative tool that the administration can use to dedicate staff for COVID-related tasks and to streamline the ability to purchase products such as testing equipment.