City leaders frustrated by ‘inadequate leadership’ from state, county during pandemic

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Midwest City administrative building. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

After weeks of resisting calls to close businesses and public gatherings, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an order on March 24 to close all nonessential businesses in counties with confirmed cases of COVID-19, a response to a virus that had already spread through Asia, Europe and much of the United States. 

Less than 24 hours later, Stitt revised his order to significantly increase the types of businesses considered “essential,” including most corporate offices, manufacturing facilities and even golf courses. 

Midwest City Mayor Matt Dukes wrote his city attorney, complaining about the abrupt change by Stitt. 

“As anticipated the language in the ordinance from last night created confusion,” Dukes wrote in an email on March 25. “The governor did not do us any favors yesterday.”

In his email, Dukes said he had been texting “all of the metro mayors and all are of the same opinion” that the governor’s order created more confusion than clarity. 

In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, many mayors and city officials in Oklahoma’s midsize cities often felt like they were receiving a lack of direction from state and county officials, according to thousands of emails obtained by The Frontier.

While the mayors of Oklahoma City and Tulsa benefited from local health departments and often acted in unison with their own orders, leaders in smaller cities said they were isolated in making decisions.

The Frontier requested coronavirus-related emails from dozens of cities and towns across Oklahoma and received more than 10,000 documents that revealed what city leaders were thinking and doing amid an unprecedented crisis.

In Enid, elected officials were equally confused by Stitt’s closure order. 

Enid City Councilman Ben Ezzell

“The Governor is providing wildly inadequate leadership here,” Enid city councilman Ben Ezzell wrote the city’s mayor on March 26. 

Ezzell was concerned the state was still not acting with enough urgency to stop a virus that had already killed nearly 900 people in other states.

In Edmond, city officials were also frustrated with a lack of guidance from the state.

On March 17, when Oklahoma City announced the closure of dine-in restaurant service, Larry Stevens, Edmond’s city manager, wrote others saying the decisions out of Oklahoma City likely foretold what would be necessary in Edmond, but “wouldn’t it be helpful if the State would handle this one without each city having to address this on their own?”

City officials were often unsure what they could legally do when it came to closing businesses and offices, especially as more residents asked for action. 

On March 17, Edmond city officials received an email from a person identified as a dental employee who wrote, “We as employees at dental offices are working directly inside of patients mouths and this is a huge risk not only to us employees but to our patients. Our employers are still requiring us to work under these circumstances and it is not safe for anyone.”

City officials referred the person to the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.

Jim Smith, assistant city manager of operations, responded by saying he didn’t believe the city could enforce such a closure.

“I think we (City) are out of place to tell private industry to shut down their business,” Smith wrote. “And I am sure they are all having internal discussions in regards to the coronavirus and their safety issues/liabilities.”

Oklahoma City-County Health Department office building in Oklahoma City. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

‘we have no guidance’

In addition to the state Health Department, both Oklahoma and Tulsa counties also have health departments that took on active roles during the early days of the pandemic. 

But Dukes, the mayor of Midwest City, emailed Oklahoma County officials to complain his city was not receiving instructions on how to proceed. 

“We have received NO guidance from the Oklahoma County City/County Health Department with the exception of an obligatory email from a LT Knighten with the daily stats which are basically copied from the Oklahoma State Health Department,” Dukes wrote Oklahoma County Commissioner Carrie Blumert. 

In a followup email Dukes said he felt a lack of representation on the county health department’s board. 

“Our residents pay AD VELORUM (sic) taxes to support OCCHD but get nothing in return,” Dukes wrote. 

Dukes’ frustration with the county health department was shared by his staff. 

“Tim and I get nothing from the Oklahoma City Health Department (left County out to make a point). They tell us NOTTA!,” wrote Vaughn K. Sullivan, assistant city manager of Midwest City. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks during a press conference in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Tuesday, April 7, 2020 where the State of Oklahoma has amassed it stockpile of personal protection equipment and medical supplies for the State’s COVID-19 response. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

‘hype machine running full tilt’

Oklahoma was one of the final places in the northern hemisphere to fall to the pandemic. But even as thousands had already died in Asia and Europe, some Oklahoma mayors continued to downplay the severity as it first entered the United States. 

On Feb. 28, one day before the first reported coronavirus death in the United States, Kary D. Cox of Washington County Emergency Management emailed local government leaders with known facts about COVID-19, which at the time had been detected in just a few states on the coast. 

“The potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 is high, both globally and to the U.S.,” Cox wrote. 

When Bartlesville’s city manager suggested that Cox speak at the next council meeting, Mayor Dale Copeland supported the idea, but downplayed the coming crisis. 

Bartlesville Mayor Dale Copeland

“I suspect the virus scare will prove largely unfounded, but the media has the hype machine running full tilt,” Copeland wrote on March 2. 

A week later Copeland began receiving emails from citizens requesting that the city take some action to limit movement in Bartlesville. Copeland told one resident the city was closely monitoring the situation, but that he was also hearing “from citizens sharing their concerns about personal freedom and civil liberties being impacted in such a scenario.”

As some city officials recommended the cancelation of events and even suspending some travel, Copeland continued to respond that beyond basic sanitation practices he didn’t see a need for further action. 

“I struggle with restricting folks (sic) freedom of travel for anything less than a bonafide crisis,” Copeland wrote on March 12, when the number of confirmed cases in Oklahoma was at three. “The more I read and hear that this *could* become a crisis, but the actual numbers don’t seem to yet support the hysteria swirling about. I heard yesterday that reported new cases in China are on the decline. With China who knows the actual truth?”

Later that day, Copeland wrote city officials saying he was getting two types of emails from citizens concerning the coronavirus:

“On the one hand is LEAVE US ALONE! I have constitutional rights. On the other hand is TAKE CARE OF ME! The government owes me.”

On March 17, Copeland said the city was asking local grocery stores to reserve an hour for older customers but told citizens further action was not under consideration. 

“You may rest assured that there is no plan at present to close any business in Bartlesville because of Covid-19. We will ask everyone to practice heightened awareness and additional sanitation efforts with increased social distancing as we all strive together to minimize any impact from this still largely unknown illness,” Copeland wrote a citizen asking that a local fitness center be kept open. 

In the coming days Copeland received more emails from citizens urging the city to close businesses. 

By March 20, Copeland sent an email to the Oklahoma Municipal League complaining that the state was not doing more.

“Instead of forcing a crazy patchwork of local actions by cities, why hasn’t the state provide (sic) some unified, broad based decisions, including business closures?”

Bartlesville’s mayor was hardly the only one in Oklahoma receiving emails from citizens who were on both sides of the debate on whether to close businesses. 

In Midwest City, when Mayor Dukes was resisting pressure to force the closure of businesses, he received an email from a resident who wrote: “When the hospital starts overflowing and bodies start start piling up, I hope you’re one of the ones in the morgue instead of a poor server forced to work in these conditions.”

Dukes wrote back: “You are a jerk.”

EMSA ambulances. Photo Courtesy of NewsOn6

‘I’ve never seen as much fear’

City officials also had to navigate how to handle their own staff, including emergency responders who were going into homes with possible COVID-19 cases. 

In March, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that emergency responders be quarantined after coming in contact with a known case. But on April 9 the state Department of Health notified cities that CDC guidance had changed to allow critical infrastructure workers, including emergency responders, to continue working after exposure to COVID-19 as long as they remained asymptomatic. 

City officials in Stillwater were concerned about the change and decided to keep the former guidelines in place.

“I am a bit spooked by this change. What do the rest of you think?” wrote Stillwater City Manager Norman McNickle in an email to other city officials. 

“I say we keep our extra layer of protection,” responded Christy Luper, the city’s human resources manager. “We’ve had several instances where we started out with an employee having contact with a person (the contact of the employee) turned positive. Down the road we may need to use this, but right now I think our staffing plans are working with the extra precautionary time.”

The economic decline caused by the coronavirus also worried city leaders as municipal governments in Oklahoma are entirely dependent on sales tax for general revenue. 

“I’ve never seen as much fear that exists in an organization as we currently are experiencing,” wrote Tim Lyon in an April 9 email, the city manager of Midwest City. “Our Department Heads and employees are scared of the virus but also the impact of the virus on our financial condition.”

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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