Summit County anti-vaccine advocates are asking for the right to speak at Board of Health meetings
Board of Health to consider allowing public to weigh in on health policies
A group of anti-vaccine and anti-mask advocates attempted multiple times to comment at Monday’s Summit County Board of Health meeting but were ultimately rebuffed, their comments relegated to the chat function of the virtual meeting and not addressed by officials.
The board was set to discuss coronavirus-related precautions in schools, an issue that has drawn intense scrutiny during the pandemic.
The written comments questioned the efficacy and safety of vaccines and the need for children to wear masks in schools, and advocated for alternative therapies for COVID-19.
The board sets aside a portion of its meeting to solicit comments from the public about items not on the agenda. During that time, a man who identified himself as Ryan Sternagel said he was associated with a group called Summit County Freedom, which opposes coronavirus-related health measures including mask-wearing and vaccinations.
Board Chair Chris Cherniak cut off Sternagel as he was discussing the health effects of children wearing masks in schools.
“I’m not going to take comments on an agenda-specific item,” Cherniak said. “I’m taking public comments on a non-agenda-specific item, and you’re talking about COVID, which is an agenda-specific item. So I apologize about that. That’s the policy we have.”
Summit County Freedom claims on its website to represent 300 local families, and its website includes a photo of a wintertime anti-mask demonstration and purported email correspondence with Summit County officials.
The group identifies as nonpartisan, though it discusses conservative hot-button issues like election integrity and teaching critical race theory in schools. It claims on its website to have protested at the Summit County health director’s home.
Sternagel, as well as two other speakers, were measured in their comments. When it became clear the board would not hear comments about coronavirus-related issues, the commenters pivoted to request the board provide a public avenue to comment about the pandemic.
One woman said she was grateful for the opportunity to submit written comments to the board via email, but asked if she’d ever be allowed to speak at a Board of Health meeting.
“I’m just wondering when we will have a chance to talk about COVID-related items, because if we’re not permitted to say anything related to the agenda, all you have to do is put COVID on the agenda every month and we’re never allowed to express any thoughts about it,” she said. “Will we ever have a chance to talk about that? It’s pretty relevant in our lives right now.”
Cherniak said he would take the suggestion under advisement and would consult with the county’s attorneys.
Board members appeared split on the issue of hosting a public hearing about coronavirus-related measures.
Chris Ure advocated for hosting a session, indicating it would allow community members to feel heard. Dorothy Adams said it isn’t the board’s role to respond to theories sent in by members of the public.
“I don’t think a Board of Health meeting is a place for people to vent their frustrations,” she said.
Phil Bondurant, who is set to take over as the county’s health director later this month, said Monday’s Board of Health meeting drew more people than had attended in a long while.
None, however, appeared to attend in person. No members of the public were visible in the Board of Health office where the majority of the board met. The meeting was streamed live on Zoom.
Summit County boards, including the two planning commissions, County Council and the Board of Health, routinely include as part of their agendas a time for members of the public to comment on issues not on the meeting’s agenda.
But officials do not accept comments during that time on issues the board is scheduled to address.
Discretion about whether to hear public comment on agenda items generally falls to the chair of the board or commission, unless the item is scheduled for a public hearing.
Health Director Rich Bullough, as well as Bondurant, indicated they receive an overwhelming amount of emails and voicemails from members of the public concerned by issues related to the pandemic.
Bullough said he averaged 880 daily emails over the past 16 months, and Bondurant said on Monday afternoon he had received 22 voicemails that day.
But the public’s ability to weigh in on coronavirus-related policy has been limited at Board of Health meetings.
The County Council allowed public comment during a mask-mandate discussion in March, but cut off multiple speakers when they hit the 3-minute limit and closed the hearing while speakers were still lined up to comment. Though the time limit is routine, the strictness with which it was enforced was rare, as was ending the hearing with multiple speakers still waiting to comment.
Bullough indicated that the commenters’ concerns about the possibility of new government restrictions might not be necessary.
“I appreciate the fact that there’s tension in the community and that people are concerned about the direction that we’re going,” he said. “… I do want to caution people: There’s a lot of assumptions out there that we’re going to aggressively go to issuing orders and all of those kinds of things. Phil is going to address that. Our numbers are still quite good and we’re going to follow the data.”
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A public hearing regarding Summit County’s $50 million open space bond is scheduled Wednesday in Coalville. Officials hope to hear from those who live on the East Side.