Vinita City Hall. Courtesy/City of Vinita

The Vinita City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to rescind an emergency ordinance establishing a city curfew and, with certain exceptions, requiring people to remain in their homes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the meeting, the council also voted to replace the ordinance with a new measure that does not include a curfew, only “strongly encouraged” people to remain in their homes and does away with criminal penalties for violating provisions of the ordinance.

The original emergency ordinance, which was passed by the council by a 5-3 vote on April 7, was the subject of a lawsuit brought earlier this week by more than 20 Vinita residents and scheduled for a hearing Thursday morning.

Attorney Josh Lee, who filed the suit on Monday and was listed as a plaintiff, argued that the ordinance was a violation of residents’ constitutional rights, was a “24/7 mandatory lock down, subject to criminal penalties, and not merely a curfew,” and that the ordinance was so broad it required subjective interpretation of what activities were allowed by the officers charged with enforcing it.

The emergency ordinance established a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for all residents, required residents and visitors in the city limits to stay at home or temporary living quarters except when traveling to or from work and for essential errands, which includes obtaining medications, groceries, gas and going to doctor appointments. It allowed people to go outside — as long as they maintain a distance of at least 6 feet — to exercise and for mental health purposes between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Penalties for violating the emergency ordinance included a fine of up to $500, an administrative fee of $150 for each public nuisance abatement and up to 30 days in jail.

Initially, Vinita Mayor Chuck Hoskin defended the measure, telling the Vinita Daily Journal that the ordinance was not a “24/7 mandatory shutdown” of the city, and that people could call the police station to ask whether the activities they wanted to engage in violated the ordinance.

On Wednesday evening, the Vinita City Council conducted an emergency meeting via Zoom, and after an executive session that lasted less than an hour, voted unanimously to rescind the ordinance and replace it with a new one that eliminated the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and “strongly encouraged” residents and visitors to stay indoors.

The new ordinance also removed the penalties for those who violate it and contained an emergency clause that allowed it to go into effect immediately.

Following the meeting, Lee said he plans to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit tomorrow and praised the city leaders for their action.

“We appreciate Mayor Hoskin, the Vinita City Council and City Attorney Leonard Logan for their thoughtful consideration of the concerns voiced by the citizens in this lawsuit,” Lee said. “We are proud that we were able to resolve these issues without prolonged litigation and further distraction. We would also like to thank the dozens of people who have reached out to thank us, offer support, and inquiring about joining the lawsuit. There will undoubtedly be litigation across the nation, but it doesn’t have to be out of our hometown. The democratic process worked here.”

The lawsuit was one of the first, if not the first, legal challenges in the state against measures put in place by governments to combat the spread of COVID-19.

In March, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a safer-at-home that applies to people at greater risk for complications associated with COVID-19, such as those over age 65 or with underlying health conditions, but has yet to issue a shelter-in-place order, calling it an issue of “personal responsibility.”

Numerous other cities in Oklahoma have issued such orders to their respective residents. Norman was one of the first to issue a shelter-in-place order on March 25, followed by similar orders in Oklahoma City and Tulsa on March 28. Though not all have established curfews in connection with those orders, some — such as Lawton, Pryor, Atoka, Kingfisher, Tahlequah and several others — have. In one case, the city of Altus issued an emergency order requiring social distancing, implementing a curfew and requiring that residents who do go out wear a face mask.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, social distancing — physical separation of six feet or more between people and limiting contact with others outside of one’s own home — is the best method to help limit the spread of the disease, which has already claimed the lives of nearly 112,000 people worldwide as of Monday.

As of Wednesday, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 2,263 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 510 hospitalizations and 123 confirmed deaths related to the disease. Craig County, of which Vinita is the county seat, had 8 confirmed cases and no deaths, according to the health department. Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control states there are nearly 605,390 confirmed cases and nearly 25,000 deaths in the United States.

Further Reading:

Lawsuit alleges Vinita's COVID-19 stay-at-home ordinance violates constitutional rights, seeks injunction