As infections continue to climb in Oklahoma, mayors of the state’s largest cities are again taking matters into their own hands in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Mayors of Tulsa, Norman and Oklahoma City in recent days have issued, or said they will issue, orders reinstating some restrictions, such as requiring employees to wear masks in bars and restaurants and decreasing capacity limits in some facilities.
Meanwhile, Gov. Kevin Stitt has said Oklahoma is “a long ways away from” reinstating business closures, and that a statewide mask mandate is off the table. Stitt in recent days has acknowledged increasing caseloads, but has maintained that hospitalizations are manageable.
“We can’t sustain another spike on top of this one,” said Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt at a news conference on Wednesday.
“Please be careful and recognize the seriousness of this virus, especially if you’re a young person.”
Local leaders in cities across the state issued their own stay-at-home orders and closed nonessential businesses to varying degrees well ahead of the governor’s statewide mandate in late March.
Bynum and Holt have worked in concert with each other since the pandemic gripped Oklahoma. The mayors told The Frontier earlier this year that no matter what restrictions the state did, or didn’t, put in place, it made sense for Oklahoma’s two largest cities to work together to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Both mayors last week said they were concerned with spiking cases and hospitalizations, and that they would be willing to implement their own restrictions locally if the trend continued.
“Next week is a critical week for identifying what, if anything, Oklahoma’s major urban areas are going to have to do to get these numbers under control before they start endangering our hospital capacity,” Bynum said at a news conference on June 24.
During a news conference on Wednesday, Holt announced he was issuing emergency orders ahead of the July Fourth weekend in an effort to stop infectious spread.
Holt said although Oklahoma City metro area hospitalizations had remained flat over the last week, they still were at an elevated level. New cases also were high compared to previous weeks, he said.
“We are stuck at an elevated level that in and of itself is manageable, but puts us right on the edge of an unmanageable situation,” Holt said.
Starting Friday, Holt said, all employees at bars and restaurants will be required to wear masks, and bar capacities will be cut in half. In an effort to slow infectious spread seen at churches, weddings and funerals, venues with theater-style seating must return to staggered seating, with every other row closed and at least two empty seats between attendees.
The measures will be in effect for at least two weeks, Holt said.
Holt, who has said a citywide mask mandate wouldn’t be “practical,” also requested all residents wear a mask in public, and reiterated that private businesses have a right to require masks in their facilities.
Bynum followed suit Thursday, announcing he would mandate restaurant and bar employees to wear masks at work. Additionally, starting July 16, any events with more than 500 attendees will be required to have a safety plan approved by the Tulsa Health Department.
While the governor’s plan to reopen has its strengths in applying uniform standards across the state, it also has shortcomings, Bynum said.
“A clear weakness is it does not adapt to local fluctuations particularly in urban areas where population areas are much greater,” he said.
Bynum stopped short of reducing capacity in bars or requiring theater-style venues to stagger seating, saying decisions were being made “by the data here on the ground in Tulsa specifically.”
In Norman, during a three-hour special session on Tuesday night, the City Council discussed the increase in coronavirus cases and members said that while they support a policy mandating masks, they said reinstating business closures was not yet under consideration.
“It is time to have very important conversations about our next steps, as the status quo clearly isn’t going to work, especially as a college town,” Mayor Breea Clark said. “if we are wanting to bring back thousands of young people to our community, many coming from the great state of Texas, which has seen one of the greatest outbreaks in the nation.”
The council is set to meet again next week to consider an emergency ordinance.
Public health officials have said in recent weeks the bulk of new cases has been traced back to indoor gatherings such as weddings, funerals, bars and house parties.
Stitt on Tuesday indicated he would support local governments implementing their own measures.
“From the very beginning, we believe in local control, and we haven’t been heavy handed with the different municipalities, and so they’re close to the people, and we’re trying to give guidance over the state of Oklahoma,” he said at a news conference at the state Capitol.
Bynum and Holt in late April expressed frustration with Stitt’s plan to reopen businesses statewide, saying it was “futile” to continue reinforcing restrictions in their own cities, which would create an inefficient patchwork of rules across the state.
Bynum at the time said Tulsa’s local infection numbers did not yet match federal guidelines to reopen, while Holt said Oklahoma City met them by the “skin of our teeth.”
“If we show signs of becoming a hotspot I will not hesitate to act aggressively as I did not hesitate before,” Holt said in late April. “I know sometimes it can feel like you’re alone and you wonder if your leaders prioritize your life. Well, I do.”