Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum found himself in an unenviable position as a politician last year as the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding worldwide and had finally reached Oklahoma.
Bynum, a Republican mayor in a right-leaning city, was navigating the difficult early stages of the pandemic when solid information on the virus was scarce and many conservatives across the country were questioning just how dangerous the coronavirus actually was.
He was also running for re-election.
“I can tell you, we put our mask order in place a month before my reelection and my numbers immediately dropped 20 points,” Bynum said.
Bynum’s stiffest Republican opponent in the election ended up being Ken Reddick, a Republican whose platform consisted mainly of opposition to mask mandates and government shutdowns.
“He picked up a ton of support that was based on opposition to masks, not about his dynamic ideas for Tulsa,” Bynum said.
Bynum won with 51.9 percent of the vote, narrowly avoiding a runoff after Reddick cut deeply into his support among conservatives.
“I pushed for (the mandate) and signed it knowing of the political consequences of doing it,” he said.
Oklahoma never enacted a statewide mask mandate, leaving much of the responsibility for the state’s COVID-19 response to local governments. Mayors, city councils and county governments were left to determine which safety measures were put in place and deal with the political consequences.
The Frontier asked mayors from the state’s three largest cities to reflect on the political fallout of their decisions during the pandemic.
In deep-red Oklahoma, COVID-19 restrictions and mandates were unpopular with many conservative groups. One state senator tried to make it illegal to mandate masks. In Broken Arrow, a Tulsa suburb, the pandemic had raged for a full year before the city council there finally passed a resolution that encouraged masking. It was repealed about a month later following a local election that saw a vocal anti-mask councilor elected as mayor. Meanwhile officials in Norman, one of Oklahoma’s bluest cities, dealt with a conservative backlash after enacting aggressive measures to stop the spread of the virus.
There have been dozens of moments during the pandemic that stand out to Norman Mayor Breea Clark, but perhaps none more so than when she was notified of the first COVID-19 related death in the city.
“I’ll never forget that feeling I had,” she said. “You knew it would happen at some point, but it was still so heart-breaking.”
Norman was the first of Oklahoma’s three largest cities to issue a mask mandate, which Clark says was enabled by the city being “a little more progressive than the rest of Oklahoma.”
Cleveland County still leans decisively Republican, according to Cleveland County Election Board figures. But Norman is a college town and in 2019 Clark, a Democrat, was elected by nearly 1,000 more votes than her opponent.
Before Oklahoma reported the first COVID-19 case in the state, Clark said she spent weeks watching news coverage as the virus spread in other countries and inched closer to home.
“That was helpful for me because we were able to see it before it really got here and we prepared for it as much as we could,” she said. “We were the first city (in Oklahoma) to declare a state of emergency and we did our mask mandate first. We are a city that values education so we moved forward quickly.”
Clark said she received “lots of awful emails and threats and comments” about the mask mandate, but she also got supportive notes from Norman residents before and after the mandate went into effect.
“It helped me make the tough decisions,” she said of that support. “They reached out urging me to follow the science. I knew the majority of people here would support me.”
In October, a local political activist named Sassan Moghadam sued the City of Norman, over the city’s requirement on indoor masking inside private residences where 25 or more people were present. It did not succeed.
Moghadam also attempted to force a recall election of Clark and several city councilors following the mask mandate order and a lower than anticipated bump in the Norman Police Department’s budget. Moghadam’s Unite Norman group collected more than 20,000 signatures, but several thousand were ruled invalid and the attempt to recall Clark failed.
Looking back, Clark said she’s disappointed to the extent COVID-19 precautions became politicized. Masks “were a no-brainer from the beginning,” she said, noting that while Norman is Oklahoma’s third-largest city it had the fifth-most cases and fourth-most deaths. She said she regrets not instituting the mask mandate sooner, “because the data shows that it worked.”
“Health issues don’t care what party you belong to,” she said. “It’s frustrating still to see how politicized it is. First it was masks and now it’s the vaccines. You would hope that people could see beyond their political party, but the numbers speak to themselves about who wore masks and who is getting vaccinated.”
Things started out pretty great for David Holt after he ascended to the position of mayor of Oklahoma’s largest city in 2018. A basketball fan, he’s been courtside for Oklahoma City Thunder games and has several jerseys adorned with his name. He oversaw the popular MAPS 4 vote in 2019 that promised nearly a billion dollars for public improvements, and he introduced Kings of Leon (and dropped the mic) at the city’s Scissortail Park, a 70-acre space that opened in 2019.
But 2020, with all its pandemic-related difficulties, was a new challenge for the Republican mayor.
Oklahoma City holds a unique place politically in the state. The state capitol is located just east of Interstate 235 and is largely filled with Republican lawmakers. But the city itself is increasingly purple. In 2018, it sent a democrat to Washington D.C. for the first time more than 40 years, and the city has elected numerous Democrats to state office. Seven of the 19 Democrats in the state House of Representatives are from Oklahoma City, as are five of the nine Democratic state senators.
Holt told The Frontier in early 2020, as COVID-19 had reached Oklahoma but before it had done its real damage that he wanted to be proactive in his attempts to keep the virus under control.
Oklahoma City instituted a mask mandate last July. And while there was some pushback, the Republican mayor said he largely found himself with a population ready to do what it took to get through the pandemic safely.
“It was a balancing act,” he said. “You had to do what was best for public health, but at the same time recognize that American society is a free society and that people won’t shelter in place forever. They would do the right thing but it was important to tell them why they were doing it and for how long it might be necessary.”
Unlike in Norman, Holt didn’t face the possibility of a recall election. Some people called him a RINO — short for Republican in name only — on social media, but Holt felt like the detractors were far outnumbered by people who felt the city was making the right decisions. And in the end, he said, he was trying to help save lives.
“Politically I don’t think I paid a price for my decisions,” Holt said. “It was a situation with thousands of lives at stake. I couldn’t care less about my own political future at that point.”
Holt said he believes rules don’t necessarily change people’s behavior on their own. People will follow rules, he said, if there’s a clear reason and understanding of why the rules need to exist.
“Public health experts understand that explicitly, and we really leaned on them,” Holt said. “A lot of the literature I read was how to influence public behavior as much as it was about public health measures that need to be put in place.”
The more-even split between Republicans and Democrats as you’re likely to find in Oklahoma, made the work simpler, Holt said.
“I was very grateful that by serving in a purple place in Oklahoma City, we were free to do the right things,” Holt said. “I felt like no matter what I do, half the people will agree, so let’s just do the right thing and we’ll have success.”
Now, as the daily count of new COVID-19 cases continues to dwindle, Holt said Oklahoma City just cashed its largest sales tax check in history, a sign, he said, that the economy there has recovered in force.
“If you had asked me in March 2020 I would have assumed I would be a mayor who presides over empty storefronts and office space and that has just not materialized,” he said. “If you compare our numbers capita in cases and deaths, it’s definitely at the lower end and economically we are exploding right now.”
Last fall, months after the mask mandate and shutdown order had been put in place, Oklahoma City conducted a citizen survey that asks “is the city going in the right direction.”
“It was something like 70 percent felt we were going in the right direction,” Holt said. “We have other polls that tell a similar story. I think negativity would have been captured (in those polls.”)
Early on in Oklahoma’s pandemic, when the reported case count was still low, there was little knowledge about COVID-19 or how it spread. There was a lot of “external noise” surrounding the virus, particularly politically, Bynum said.
“In the early going I spent just a tremendous amount of time every day trying to learn as much as I could about different viewpoints nationally and internationally and what I ultimately learned was my job wasn’t to set national policy, it was to save the lives of Tulsans.”
Tulsa initiated its mask mandate in July 2020, a little more than a month after President Donald Trump held a rally in the city’s downtown BOK Center, where thousands of unmasked attendees sat in an enclosed arena for nearly 10 hours.
Bynum was criticized locally for not stopping the rally, but he maintained that his hands were tied. The Governor’s office declared that Oklahoma had fully re-opened on June 1, 2020, and Bynum said in an interview last year that he wasn’t going to veer off the course the state had set. But it didn’t mean he was excited to host the event. He said in a social media post before the event that he had “anxiety” about the rally and wished Trump had chosen another city.
Bynum said he initially was reticent to put in a mask mandate, but local hospital leaders came to him with numbers showing a rapidly increasing hospitalization rate. Early in the pandemic, Bynum said, a lot of the discussion about COVID-19 restrictions was “philosophical.” But the talk with local hospital leaders made it a much more visceral, tangible concern.
“When you have these people whose jobs are to save the lives of people who are dying and they say we need your help to get through this and save people, it becomes a simpler calculation,” Bynum said. “Political philosophy and political caution go out the window and the only thing that matters is those experts saying that.
Their concern, Bynum said, changed his mind. He felt he had two options — another shutdown that would cripple the economy, or a mask mandate that would give hospitals time to prepare for a surge but would minimize harm to local businesses that had already closed down once.
The lesson he learned, he said, was to lean on local experts in a time of crisis. He decided not to worry about national headlines and instead focused on local leaders like Tulsa County Health Department executive director Bruce Dart.
The Tulsa County Health Department is one of only two independent county health departments in Oklahoma. It has its own board of directors and is not beholden to state leadership or even Bynum himself.
“They’re not held to political pressure,” Bynum said. “They can tell me I’m wrong … you get unvarnished advice from them … There is a lot of external noise but the immediate issue was to protect the lives of Tulsans and utilizing the expertise here was the best way to do that.”