Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum responded strongly when the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March, issuing shelter-in-place orders, banning large-scale public gatherings and restricting dine-in activity at restaurants. They took courageous stances when Gov. Kevin Stitt dragged his feet with a non-binding “safer-at-home” policy.
But now, with the statewide number of new coronavirus cases doubling or tripling the numbers seen in April, Bynum and Holt have seemingly lost their nerve when it comes to repeating those same heroic measures.
Opinion by George D. Lang
Bynum’s decision to allow President Donald Trump to hold a June 20 rally at Tulsa’s BOK Center was a shocking capitulation to a president who refuses to follow guidelines set forth by his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Like most of their 6,200 followers who attended the event, Trump and Gov. Kevin Stitt refused to wear masks.
Bynum could have invoked civil authority to stop the event, and he did not. On June 23, he told Tulsa World that there was nothing he could have done, but in the same story, he said, the “only option at my disposal was a citywide ban on public events.”
So, which is it?
The only possible explanation is that Bynum did not have the fortitude, the political will to do what needed to be done. If there are surges in cases reported in Tulsa County in the first week of July, where does the buck stop?
Holt is faring better than Bynum, mainly because he did not have to deal with a bellicose anti-masker president wanting to hold a rally at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Still, Holt appears to be hedging on COVID-19 surge response.
He touts the city’s low fatality rate from coronavirus as a sign that Oklahoma City does not need to reinstate shelter-in-place — for now, at least — while still asking people to voluntarily distance socially and wear masks.
So far, though, there are a lot of visible mouths and noses in the grocery stores, the restaurants and the churches. If voluntary is not working, mandatory is the next action, and despite the number of new cases, Holt seems reticent about taking action in the manner he did in March and April.
The mayor held a virtual press conference on June 23 to discuss possible actions in response to the surge.
“I have always said we would follow science and data in our pandemic response, and we’re taking this time today to walk you through the science and the data because this chapter presents some new twists, and we’re trying to react accordingly,” Holt said. “But if hospitalizations continue to rise at the rate seen over the last few days, or if deaths return to the rates seen previously, we will have little choice but to roll back to earlier phases of our reopening.”
While Holt’s approach represents a stark contrast to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s ebullient happy talk at Trump’s poorly attended rally, the mayor did not say how many hospitalizations or deaths it would take for him to reinstate and enforce closures. We have no benchmark by which to hold him accountable.
I take exception to Holt’s emphasis on death rates when contracting the disease can be utterly debilitating. While some people experience no symptoms, others can be gravely ill for weeks and be left susceptible to strokes or heart attacks.
Holt closed his statement by emphasizing personal responsibility, saying that he was “here today for the first time in seven weeks to ask you to regain the mindset that worked so well for so long. If you think you’re bored by the pandemic, how do you think we feel?”
I think Holt feels like Stitt and the rest of the state government left him with few options by forcing the state to reopen. If Oklahoma City did not follow surrounding towns by opening as well, the anti-masker masses would go out anyway and, in all likelihood, spend their tax dollars outside the city. I get it.
But reverting to a “mindset that worked so well for so long” stretches the definition of “for so long,” because we only sheltered in place for about six weeks.
Also, calling for personal responsibility in the face of a pandemic is mild and voluntary when many people around us are living in a pre-coronavirus fantasy land. Anyone who has visited a Walmart in recent weeks can tell you that most of the people wearing masks in those stores are employees. Holt should not have lifted his “shelter in place” order, because now the COVID-19 unbelievers are out and frolicking.
Obviously, there is some confusion over what powers these Oklahoma mayors have regarding public health measures, and most of it stems from Senate Bill 1102, authored by state Rep. Kevin West (R-Moore) and state Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman). In its final version, SB 1102 called for curtailing a mayor’s authority to take public health measures that exceeded those of the state. Basically, West did not like the fact that mayors like Holt and Bynum were ordering the closure of churches in response to COVID-19, and so he took what was once a domestic abuse bill and transmogrified it into a “screw you” to civic governance.
The bill narrowly passed the state House 53-44, but the state Senate did not vote on the bill prior to adjourning on May 15.
So, at least until next year, Bynum and Holt can respond to COVID-19 surges independent of Stitt’s failing health policies and stand up to mask-averse bozos, whether they are touching all the produce in a grocery store, drunkenly piling into a Midtown bar or serving as the governor of Oklahoma.
But will they?