“Outside of the death of a family member, (Tuesday) was the worst day of my life.”
G.T. Bynum is normally pretty upbeat. He surprised many people, himself included, in 2016 when he defeated longtime incumbent Dewey Bartlett to become the mayor of Tulsa. And despite some unrest — such as a high-profile officer involved shooting and ensuing trial, or the massive floods of 2019 — he’s enjoyed his time in office.
Tulsa, he says, is his city. And, with a smile on his face, he’s watched as parts of it have continued to blossom in the last few years.
But on Tuesday he had to make a call. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued, and as its effects were only just being realized in Oklahoma, he signed an order that closed bars and other entertainment venues, and turned the city’s vibrant restaurant scene into takeout-only.
Just like that, thousands of people saw their jobs disappear. And when he ranks it among the worst days of his life, he means it.
“The reason for that is you’re knowingly doing something that is destroying the dreams of so many people you care about,” he said recently during an interview with The Frontier. “I have so many friends whose dream was to open a restaurant in Tulsa, and for me to tell them they have to switch to takeout and know that thousands would lose their jobs because of that is just awful.”
Within hours of Bynum’s announcement on Tuesday, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt followed suit with one of his own. The timing was no accident. The two mayors have called or texted each other dozens of times every day during the last week, and they decided early on that their two cities’ actions would mirror each other.
“From the very beginning it seemed apparent to both of us that if one was doing one thing that the other one better at least have a reason why they aren’t if they aren’t going to,” Holt said. “We’re the two biggest cities in the state, we’re 90 minutes apart. For us to be taking dramatically different paths would seem very odd … so we have coordinated very closely throughout this thing.”
Holt, a former state senator, replaced then-Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett in 2018. Holt had been Cornett’s chief of staff before becoming a state legislator and assumed the role of mayor almost as a formality. When Cornett left office in an ultimately failed bid to become Oklahoma’s governor, Holt was elected to replace him by an absurdly lopsided margin, cruising into office with almost 80 percent of the vote.
Though, like Bynum, Holt said he knew what had to be done on Tuesday, that didn’t make it any easier. He likened the decision to a train operator who has to choose between running the train into a crowd of 50 people, or crashing the train into a wall and killing its 20 passengers.
“Obviously your choice is to choose the wall so 20 die instead of 50,” he said. “But that’s an excruciating choice.
“You’re choosing between life and death but life in this case comes with economic repercussions that are obviously going to affect lots of people.”
Holt said that outside of his state of the city addresses, he typically won’t write his speeches out beforehand. He prefers them to sound off the cuff. But prior to closing the city’s bars and restaurants, he sat down and put pen to paper.
“I wept, it was that painful,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to (cry) in the press conference. I didn’t think that was the right emotion to show. But it was very very painful.”
For Bynum, every trip outside is a reminder of the difficult choice he faced.
“Just driving around town, every restaurant I love to go to, I thought about all the people who worked there and how my action is impacting them today, and it makes you feel terrible,” he said. “But it’s what had to be done to protect the community overall.
Oklahoma was one of the last states to take strong measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Kevin Stitt as recent as Monday was talking about the importance of maintaining “business as usual” and, even after taking heat on social media over the weekend for eating in busy restaurants, he said he would continue to eat out through the pandemic. (He reversed course on Tuesday and urged Oklahomans to follow strict CDC guidelines.)
Oklahoma didn’t declare a state of emergency until Sunday, one of the last two states in the nation to do so. Part of this was perhaps due to location. Oklahoma, in the middle of America, was one of the last states to be reached by the coronavirus.
It also may have had to do with a lack of testing.
Facing a shortage even early on in the ability to test patients, Oklahoma was simply not testing as many people as necessary to determine the spread of the virus. As of Thursday night, the state had only conducted around 500 tests. There had been one death and 44 positive tests.
Bynum said that he had watched closely as other countries were decimated by the virus. In Italy there have been thousands of deaths. Video there has been shared online of the Italian army transporting coffins from overwhelmed morgues. But Bynum said he also saw stories of hope. South Korea greatly slowed its spread of the virus and did so without going to the authoritarian extremes that led China to also stem the tide.
Bynum said the common denominator he saw was simply removing the opportunity for people to congregate in large groups.
He said he reached out last week to Bruce Dart, the executive director of the Tulsa Health Department, to ask if they should consider a ban on large public events. Dart, who Bynum said was working around the clock, said the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at that point were not to do that unless there was evidence of community spread of the virus.
“I just had a hard time with that,” Bynum said. “I was wrestling with that …because the logic was challenging. I get that if you have plentiful testing and everyone who is concerned if they’ve contracted it can go to a corner drug store and get a test, then the notion of waiting until you have evidence of community spread makes all the sense in the world.”
But Oklahoma has none of that.
“I called Bruce back on Saturday morning and I said ‘I’m having a really hard time with this because I feel like the guidance we’re relying on presupposes that tests are there and they’re not,’” Bynum said. “He said ‘I think you’re right Mayor, I think we need to do this limitation.’”
On Saturday Bynum regulated city facilities, limiting groups to 250 people or less.
“I had been in agony about it but making the announcement was a tremendous relief because I was like this makes logical sense,” Bynum said.
When Bynum ran for mayor, part of his platform was an increased focus on data and science. He created a number of city positions that would collect data on a number of different things, distill it down, and then figure out what needed to be done. One of the first things he said while campaigning in 2016 was that he had learned the largely African American northern section of Tulsa had a life expectancy of a decade less than Tulsans a few miles south.
“I really believe in times like this you don’t make political decisions, you really trust the scientific experts and their guidance and you utilize the political role that you have to carry out whatever guidance they have that is needed to best protect people,” he said.
On Sunday, after the CDC revised its guidance to limit gatherings to fewer than 50 people, Bynum followed suit. Then Tuesday he shut down the bars and restaurants.
Bynum said the best explanation he heard of the potential worst case scenario was that, normally, if your hospital has a shortage due to one disaster or another, a hospital in another state can send them supplies. So if you’re low on respirators, another hospital can step up and help.
“But when the entire world is being hit at the same time, you don’t have that luxury,” he said. “The announcements were really based in this sense that the great tragedy that can occur if cities don’t find a way to limit social contact is you overload your hospital system.”
The events in Oklahoma City unfolded at a similarly rapid pace. It was only a little more than a week ago that 18,000 people filed into Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena to watch the Oklahoma City Thunder play the Utah Jazz. (That game was ultimately halted just before tipoff when a Jazz player received a positive COVID-19 diagnosis.)
“Today if you get in a room with more than two people you get uncomfortable,” Holt said.
“I’m fairly certain and confident that Tulsa and Oklahoma City’s response time in taking measures is probably the best in the world,” Holt said. “If you really look at it, when the Oklahoma City metro got our first case it was (March 13,) and our first local case was Sunday. We declared an emergency that day, then we were closing bars and restaurant dining rooms within 48 hours.”
Right now both cities, and much of the state — though not everyone immediately followed suit — are waiting to see what happens next.
“I think we did the big steps,” Holt said. “A lot of it continues to be communication, obviously there is that some cities around the globe have gone to a full shelter in place strategy. We have to have the public’s buy-in to that, and obviously that’s pretty catastrophic to the economy and functions of your city, so that’s why we take these other actions first
“But we’ll do whatever we have to do to protect the public safety of our citizens. But we went a long way this week. The only steps remaining are steps of last resort.”