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Cancellation of parade leads to questions on health department authority

It may be better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission when it comes to COVID-19-inspired parades, according to Washington County Prosecutor Nicole Coil.

“To me, it seems like people on their porches and in their houses should be able to wave as a parade goes by… let’s give people a little something, they’ve given up a lot,” said Coil. “What’s the difference between throwing a piece of candy and buying it at the grocery store?”

In Tuesday’s edition of The Marietta Times, a preview of the planned parade/canned food drive for Lowell’s food pantry was announced, organized by the Lowell-Adams Fire Department.

The intentions of the organizers were two-fold, to brighten the days of local children home from school for the past two months and to operate a drive-by canned food drive for the pantry with the involvement of Beverly police, Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

But that story led to Washington County Health Department Administrator Roger Coffman calling off the event, citing section 13 of the Stay Safe At Home order signed by Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton.

“So as we went through a lot of the procedures of what (Lowell) was wanting to do, throwing candy was a big part of it,” said Coffman. “There was no planning in any of this with the health department and that’s kind of sad.”

Section 13 specifically cites parades as a type of event which is prohibited due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The governor’s open up Ohio order and the director of the Ohio Department of Health list in there that locals contact their local health department to clear events,” said Coffman.

No express language requiring organizations or businesses exist in the Stay Safe Ohio Order to clear events with the local health department before impetus.

Coffman said Section 18, which is titled “Enforcement” allows for this control by the health department, citing the final sentence:

“To the extent any public official enforcing this order has questions regarding what services are prohibited under this order, the director of health hereby delegates to local health departments the authority to answer questions in writing and consistent with this order, but does not require local health departments to provide advisory opinions to nongovernmental entities.”

However, local law enforcement and volunteer fire departments across Washington County have already participated in several impromptu parades throughout the first and now second round of state health orders.

Marietta Police have escorted parades for Washington Elementary School teachers and staff to cheer up their students, they escorted a local church’s parishioners to cheer up their pastor and his family and others have escorted parades for donuts and prayers at local hospitals.

“But what it comes down to is what is the local definition of a parade?” questioned Paul Bertram, who not only serves as the Marietta City law director, but also the prosecuting attorney for misdemeanor charges throughout the entire county.

For example, in Marietta, city codified ordinances specifically define parades as organized events requiring a permit to close off streets to other vehicular traffic, he explained.

Only in four instances are parades referred to in Ohio Revised Code, but nowhere in the state law does it define what a parade is.

“That seems to be left to local control, whether the municipality has defined it or not,” added Bertram.

Lowell-Adams Fire Chief Josh Harris said Tuesday that the unilateral denial to meet a compromise seemed political rather than practical, but that he chose not to fight the verbal order from Coffman.

“I have decided to have the parade in a couple weeks,” he shared.

“Hopefully there will be new state orders soon,” said Coil.

Janelle Patterson may be reached at jpatterson@mariettatimes.com.

At a glance:

– Lowell’s canned food and child’s parade scheduled for Wednesday was canceled by Washington County Health Department Administrator Roger Coffman.

– The canned food drive still operated out of the Lowell-Adams Fire Department.

– Legal opinions differ on authority of health administrator.

Sources: Washington County Prosecutor Nicole Coil, Misdemeanor Prosecutor Paul Bertram, Lowell Fire Chief Josh Harris and Washington County Health Department Administrator Roger Coffman.

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