CLEVELAND (WJW)- With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Northeast Ohio spiking to new daily records, few official restrictions are in place to reduce the exploding spread of the omicron variant and high-risk events continue without required masking.
State and local mask mandates previously in place before vaccination became available ended long before the current surge. The highly contagious Omicron variant is now rapidly spreading among both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Cuyahoga county has emerged as a national hotspot for the virus.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility to keep ourselves safe and our loved ones safe given that we are in the midst of a significant outbreak right now,” said Dr. Abhigit Duggal, Vice Chair for Critical Care at the Cleveland Clinic.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance states that everyone in high transmission areas, like Northeast Ohio, should wear a mask indoors in public and in crowded outdoor settings. That includes the vaccinated, who, while at reduced risk for severe illness, are now commonly contracting and spreading the virus.
“Given that we’ve seen that omicron has a very high transmissibility rate, masking becomes one of the key things for us to really utilize to break transmission for the virus,” Duggal said.
Playhouse Square requires masks and many businesses have a mandate in place for employees.
But several large, potential “super spreader” events in the Cleveland area are continuing without required masking, including Cavs games, Browns games, concerts and church services.
Citing the absence of a state or local mask mandate, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse is leaving decisions on mask requirements to teams and event producers.
“We continue to highly recommend all guests wear a mask at all times in the FieldHouse,” a spokesperson said, noting that all full-time and part-time employees are fully vaccinated and required to wear masks while working.
The Cavs and Monsters are recommending, but not requiring, masking among fans in the crowded arena. However, due to an NBA mandate, masks are required for fans seated near the court and within 15 feet of benches to protect player health.
Masks are also optional at Browns games and were rare among fans at Monday’s game, even as the team endured an outbreak among its highly vaccinated roster.
“We remain in consistent communication with our medical experts as we continue to closely monitor COVID-19 developments,” a Browns spokesperson said when asked if the team is planning to change its mask policy.
The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland this week announced that while it “strongly encourages” mask wearing in churches this Christmas, masks are not required among those attending services.
The only change to the guidelines the church loosened in August is that ministers who distribute communion will now be mandated to wear a face mask.
A spokesperson for the diocese said those who are ill, have significant risk factors or care for someone who is immunocompromised or ill, as well as those with significant anxiety of contracting the coronavirus, are not obliged to attend mass.
Local doctors cite a lack of masking in crowded settings as a likely factor in the regional outbreak.
“If you are in the midst of a huge outbreak of a viral illness and we are having these significant gatherings, that always increases the likelihood or chances of transmission going up,” Duggal said. “So that definitely worries us.”
State health orders previously required social distancing, masking and capacity limits, and a curfew was in place at this time last year.
The Ohio Legislature, through Senate Bill 22, banned Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and state health leaders from implementing such orders without legislators’ approval.
The move left health orders to city or county officials and put the onus on businesses to decide their own policies.
Though transmission is now significantly higher than at the inception of Cuyahoga County’s previous mask mandate, a county spokesperson said Wednesday there was no immediate consideration of a new public health order requiring masks in crowded settings.
“We are encouraging citizens to wear masks. We require it in our buildings,” Cuyahoga County Spokesperson Mary Louise Madigan said. “There’s nothing drafted that goes further than that.”
The city of Cleveland did not respond to a request for comment about any potential city action to curb the spread of the virus.
Without local government action that requires masking — and some businesses reluctant to institute their own restrictions — health officials urged personal caution.
“It really falls to us as members of the community to make the smart and right decisions,” said Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff.
Health leaders said everyone should wear masks, social distance and avoid large gatherings to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the strain on overwhelmed local hospitals.