'The Show' will not go on; Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ends regular COVID-19 briefings

Jackie Borchardt
Cincinnati Enquirer

After a 15-month run, Gov. Mike DeWine has ended his regular coronavirus briefings.

The Republican governor, who gained national attention for his handling of the virus, said he could call a COVID-19 press conference at some point down the road. But for all intents and purposes, his regular updates on the topic have ended.

“In the future I’m still going to be certainly available,” DeWine said Thursday. “It will be more centered on what we’re doing here in Ohio… I think we’re evolving, we’re moving forward.”

“The Show,” as it's called by DeWine staffers, spanned 168 episodes including the finale: awarding $1 million and a college scholarship in the state's Vax-a-Million drawing.

In the early days, the press conferences drew hundreds of thousands of live viewers. From March 16 to March 30, 2020, 1,223,600 tuned in live via The Ohio Channel, Facebook and YouTube. That's about one-third of all live traffic to Ohio Channel broadcasts in less than one month.

Governor Mike DeWine speaks at a press conference about coronavirus on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at the Ohio Statehouse.

In the final days, the press conferences get fewer than 10,000 live views – still a large amount for state government broadcasts.

"It was a remarkable act of transparency," said Amy Fairchild, dean of Ohio State University's College of Public Health. "Any political leader who puts themselves in that position on a daily basis – to have to answer hard questions in the face of great uncertainty is a tremendous public service."

DeWine's COVID-19 briefings provided information, ritual

In the beginning, the press conferences offered information at a time when people were thirsty for it. There was conflicting information coming out of the White House, Fairchild said, and conditions were different in different parts of the country.

Governors took the helm in daily or near-daily press conferences in most states.

"The closer you get to an individual’s community, the more trust there is," she said. "New York was in trouble at one point and it needed a different message than Ohio needed."

DeWine often held multiple press conferences and media events per week before the pandemic. But now, the entire state was watching.

DeWine talked about the state's efforts to control the virus. Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton, clad in a white doctor's coat, gave an update on the latest numbers with a dose of empathetic encouragement to continue distancing and masking. Lt. Gov. Jon Husted addressed business concerns and unemployment.

The Show typically began with DeWine featuring a school or sports team with his tie choice. Sometimes there were cameos from agency heads and first lady Fran DeWine. It ended with a choir, band or other guest sending a message from their home to yours. We're in this together, Ohio.  

The 2 p.m. briefing with DeWine, Husted, Acton and a trio of American Sign Language interpreters quickly became part of Ohioans' daily routines.

"It was episodic television. People knew what was coming – it gave them a sense of predictability," said Celso Villegas, a Kenyon College sociology professor who analyzed 64 early-pandemic press conferences in a paper last year.

Nicknamed "Wine with DeWine," the press conferences inspired memes, T-shirts, an Amy Acton Fan Club and a cartoon set to the "Laverne and Shirley" theme song.

Acton's calm demeanor and explanatory style reminded Fairchild of past public health officials who stepped into the limelight, such as Dr. Israel Weinstein, New York city's health commissioner during the smallpox outbreak in 1947.

Fairchild appreciated that DeWine brought doctors and other experts on to The Show. After Acton left, her replacement, Stephanie McCloud, rarely appeared on screen. Instead, it was chief medical officer Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff discussing the latest medical development and fielding questions from reporters.

"It’s important for people to hear from the people who are most closely tracking the science," Fairchild said.

From COVID to anything and everything

Not everyone was a fan of Acton or DeWine or The Show. Their "In this together" message rang hollow to Ohioans who had lost jobs or closed businesses. In mid-April, protesters banged on the Statehouse doors and windows loud enough to hear on the broadcast.

Protesters stand outside the Statehouse Atrium where reporters listen during the State of Ohio's Coronavirus response update on Monday, April 13, 2020 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. About 100 protesters assembled outside the building during Gov. Mike DeWine's weekday update on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, upset that the state remains under a Stay-At-Home order and that non-essential businesses remain closed. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

Viewers, in comments on the Ohio Channel feed on Facebook, questioned the need for frequent press conferences as cases began to fall. One asked for "more news other than the DeWine show."

For Villegas, the press conferences took a turn from informational to political when Acton announced her departure. DeWine used the briefings to call attention to gun violence and press lawmakers to back his legislation.  Coronavirus-focused information sometimes took a backseat to a different topic.

And then there was the day DeWine started The Show from the front porch of former President Warren G. Harding's historic home in Marion. DeWine gave a history lesson on the 1920 election. Fran raved about Mrs. Harding's waffle recipe.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and First Lady Fran DeWine pose for a photo on the front porch of the Warren G. Harding Home in Marion, Ohio, following a press conference at the historic facility on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.

About 20 minutes later, DeWine talked about a new spike in coronavirus cases he called "very, very alarming."

It wasn't until the question and answer portion that he talked about the plot to kidnap the Michigan governor over her coronavirus restrictions, partially hatched in Ohio, unveiled earlier that day.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo held his last coronavirus briefing May 12. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear stopped June 11. West Virginia's Republican governor is continuing his briefings.

"You reach a point in communications that if you’re hitting the audience with a message they’re not ready to hear it’s time to step back and save more sporadic press conferences for a time when information changes," Fairchild said.

Briefings mirrored Ohio's pandemic response

Press conferences mirrored the overall response to the pandemic. From near-daily, with lots of state action to just a few times a week and a more advisory tone. The format even changed with the latest CDC guidance.

The briefings started in a small Statehouse press room with the governor, Acton and Husted a few feet away. They migrated to a setup where DeWine was in a separate room from reporters, who were limited to one question within the time allotted for the 60- or 90-minute broadcast. Follow-ups weren't allowed, and often more time was given to The Show than to answering questions.

Reporters were asked to wear masks to briefings a few weeks before DeWine's initial April mask mandate, which he reversed course on the next day.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, wearing an Akron Rubber Ducks tie, walks into the daily coronavirus news conference on Friday, April 17, 2020 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio.

The press conference changed locales again when the governor received his false positive coronavirus test result. He told reporters he was feeling fine via Zoom from his front porch in Greene County. He twice tested negative but from then on, reporters patched in remotely, broadening the pool to journalists outside Columbus.

He used the state plane in fall 2020 (at a cost of nearly $20,000) to hold local press events, reiterating the message to stay home and wash hands as cases began to rise. Once fully vaccinated, the governor toured dozens of vaccination sites across the state, allowing small groups of reporters to sit in the briefings.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine comes off the plane at Lunken Airport before a press conference on the rising COVID-19 numbers in Ohio on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati. The press conference came after record number of cases being reported in Ohio of 2,039 new cases on Wednesday, 2,178 on Thursday and 2,148 on Friday.

A year and a couple months after being the first governor to shut down schools, DeWine was the first governor to offer money to take the vaccine – again on live television.

Press conferences dropped down to weekly meet-and-greets with the Vax-a-Million winners in June. In tandem, the governor held more non-COVID media events including his first in-person bill signing since February 2020.

DeWine left the door open to more COVID-19 press conferences – the urgency has subsided but the pandemic is not over. But for now, he has other things he wants to do.

The day before the last official coronavirus briefing, DeWine held a press conference to announce a new initiative. He stood at the podium alongside more than a dozen law enforcement officials. No one wore a mask. There was no hand sanitizer in sight. Afterward, people posed for photos and mingled, just like before. Like normal.

Jackie Borchardt is the bureau chief for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.