Although the threat of the coronavirus is upending voting in certain precincts as elections officials remove polling places from nursing homes to protect senior citizens who may be more susceptible to the virus, the polling locations in Fayette County are not changing.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people who get it recover.
In Ohio, the elections chief on Monday ordered the relocation of all polling places at nursing homes — more than 140 — just eight days ahead of the primary.
“Obviously, that’s a big step and it requires a lot of work — and our county boards of elections are working to do that right now, as we speak,” Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose told reporters Tuesday.
Moving the polling places may be the right public health move, but it creates challenges for election administrators. Those include informing voters in surrounding areas of the change and ensuring retirement community residents have transportation to their new polling location.
According to Beth Ann Snyder, director of the Fayette County Board of Elections (BOE), nursing homes located in Fayette County do not act as polling locations and all voting within the nursing homes for residents already took place.
Secretaries of state across the country are taking further steps to guard public health: encouraging voting from a distance — either by mail or by using curbside drop-off locations — creating and updating dedicated websites, partnering with voting rights organizations and campaigns to get the word out, and stocking up on plenty of supplies for disinfecting voting machines.
Fayette County Public Health, the Fayette County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) and the BOE have been working together to ensure a safe polling environment for the county.
“I feel very comfortable with where we’re at,” said Melissa Havens, director of EMA. “We’ve implemented some increased cleaning procedures. We will have things, such as hand sanitizer, available if needed. The equipment will be cleaned regularly throughout the day with the cleaning products recommended by Fayette County Public Health. Additionally, we are going to ensure that the staff working at the polls is feeling well when they arrive that morning and ensure that they show no visible signs of illness. If someone should report to the polling locations to work and they are ill, they will be asked to go home.”
According to Snyder, some of the cleaning items, such as the sanitizer, will be reimbursed by the state.
As Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Arizona prepare to vote next week, officials are taking varying approaches to the virus threat. Ohio is doing perhaps the most among Tuesday primary states to respond, but Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, is worried.
“In Ohio, I expect a lot of confusion next week,” she said, noting the shrinking number of days to get the word out about new polling locations. Election offices often can’t reach voters through emails or texts, she said, and media such as newspapers have limited reach. She said that it could be even worse in places that decide even later to move voting locations.
At virtually all polling places that remain in place, workers are being trained to disinfect machines regularly throughout Election Day. Major voting system vendor ES&S said it has shared best practices on cleaning and disinfecting the surfaces of its equipment, including touchscreens.
“We provided the procedures to help maintain a sanitary voting environment and keep the equipment operating at maximum efficiency through any election,” ES&S spokeswoman Katina Granger said.
Amber McReynolds, a former Denver election administrator who is now the executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute, an advocacy group, said election officials should be preparing for major changes for November even as they’re running primaries now.
She said it’s not enough just to encourage people to request absentee ballots. Rather, she said, officials should try to do what a handful of states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington — do already and mail ballots to every voter. A version of that model is also being used for the first time this year in Democratic caucuses in Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming and the party’s primary in Kansas.
Snyder explained that there are no plans to change polling locations but if they do so, the changes will be shared on the BOE website, www.boe.ohio.gov/fayette/.
Although the goal is to make it safe for voters to go out to the precincts for the primary election on March 17, there are extended hours for those who wish to participate in early voting at the BOE, 135 S. Main St. in Washington C.H. The hours for this week are Thursday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Although polling locations are not affecting the local nursing homes, several are taking action outside of the election changes to proactively protect both staff and residents, as they would for other contagious illnesses that are high risk for the residents.
Information from a few local nursing homes has been shared with the R-H.
Actions that many facilities are taking include, but aren’t limited to, decreasing visitation hours, increasing staff awareness and education of the illness, following state guidelines, staying up-to-date on the illness, lowering the number of residents having to travel outside the facility, etc.
Signature Healthcare explained in a press release that “the safety and well-being of our residents and stakeholders is always our top priority.”
HCF Management, the organization that owns Court House Manor, Court House Assisted Living, and St. Catherine’s Manor of WCH, explains in a press release that “the health and safety of our residents and staff is our top concern and priority.”
Senior Lifestyle, the organization that owns Carriage Court of Washington Court House, has certain guidelines the local facility is implementing “to keep our residents and staff as safe as possible,” according to Director of Sales and Marketing Beth Mccane. This includes screening all staff members for illness each shift.
“There is a responsibility for the residents of the county to make sure that if they are sick they choose to stay home and protect the rest of the public from the illness and their symptoms,” said Havens.
This includes going out for a majority of reasons, not just for the election or visitation to places such as nursing homes. Those who do feel the need to go out in public are once again asked to use respiratory etiquette such as properly covering coughs and sneezes, not shaking hands, etc.
“I am going to recommend that you avoid crowded gatherings,” said Havens. “That is what ODH (Ohio Department of Health) is recommending right now, and I stand in support of what ODH recommends.”
Havens explained for the first time in 25 years she will even be postponing her Weather Spotter Training to protect those who would take it from potentially being exposed.
“It’s very important what each individual does,” said Havens. “If everyone is responsible enough to do these things, we will do our job as a community to keep this from spreading to Fayette County.”
Staff writers of The Associated Press and Jennifer Woods contributed to this article. Reach Woods at 740-313-0355.