The Norman City Council voted to extend the city mask mandate into 2021 and discussed the implications of in-person council meetings in a Tuesday council meeting.
The council originally voted July 7 in favor of a masking ordinance requiring face coverings in public places where social distancing is not possible. The policy includes establishments offering goods and services for purchase or rent and expects businesses to display signage indicating that visitors must wear face coverings to enter.
The masking ordinance was set to expire Nov. 30, with room for the council to repeal or modify it if COVID-19 became a decreased threat. OU’s Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler emphasized increased case numbers and risks during a Tuesday City Council Conference before the general meeting.
Bratzler said the 7-day average for positive COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma is 1,947 per day, and out of the 26,000 tests run in the state, 19.2 percent were positive. He said the growing trend shows no sign of stopping, and case numbers are the highest he has seen during the pandemic.
Bratzler also said COVID-19 related hospitalizations experienced an increase, with 1,102 COVID-19 positive patients currently hospitalized — 330 of those being individuals in intensive care. Concerning hospital crowding, he said the Oklahoma City metro had 5 percent capacity in ICU beds as of Nov. 9. Tulsa hospitals have reported they have no remaining ICU capacity.
Bratzler said Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has the authority to close down elective surgeries and declare another health emergency again, yet he is continuing to oppose a statewide masking mandate.
Amid a broad community spread of COVID-19, Bratzler said communities with mask mandates have seen a reduction of about 25 percent in the risk of increasing cases in Oklahoma. He said he thinks people are ready to see consistent policy across the board to get the virus under control.
Bratzler said OU plans to continue its masking policy into the spring semester, though students have expressed concerns about returning home for the Thanksgiving holiday to places without mask mandates by encouraging them to get COVID-19 tests before they travel.
Ward 7 Councilmember Stephen Holman said although mask mandates are not stopping the virus, they are slowing the spread, and they help prevent medical facilities from being overwhelmed. He said Norman citizens should do everything they can to aid medical professionals as they manage the virus.
“I wish we did not need to use the power of government to put a mandate in place (when) we can just ask people to do it nicely for the betterment of their neighbors,” Holman said. “(But) I am not a doctor … (and) experts are telling us that this is serious and real … Based on what they said, it seems to me that this is the right thing to do at this time.”
A Norman resident said in an email during public comment she is concerned about the lack of enforcement surrounding the mask mandate. She said the police department cannot address infractions individually, and licensed businesses failing to enforce the mandate should have their licenses revoked.
Ward 1 Councilmember Kate Bierman said she’s also worried about public enforcement, as she receives messages every day from people who are frustrated by the city’s ability to implement the mandate.
“We are eight months into this pandemic,” Bierman said. “If everyone doesn’t understand by now what the city mandate is, then they’re never going to understand it. At some point, we have to actually start enforcing this because our healers at Norman Regional can’t take much more of what we’re doing right now.”
Norman Police Chief Kevin Foster said the police department is trying to educate and encourage people to do the right thing. He said officers continue to respond to calls from residents and are taking appropriate action.
Ward 6 Councilmember Elizabeth Foreman said it is important now more than ever to wear masks as people’s immune systems weaken during flu season.
“I have two autoimmune diseases, so this is very scary for me,” Foreman said. “I think it would be a disservice … to everyone who has lost a loved one to not try to extend this and to help mitigate the effects of COVID-19.”
The discussion ended with comments from Ward 3 Councilmember Alison Petrone, who said the mandate was originally implemented near the time she tested positive for COVID-19. She said the mandate helped lighten her exposure by wearing a mask and she hopes Norman residents recognize the need for enforcement.
The vote to extend the mandate to March 1 passed unanimously.
The council also discussed the approaching expiration of the emergency order modifying Oklahoma’s Open Meetings Act, which currently allows governing bodies across Oklahoma to meet virtually. Mayor Breea Clark said the order expires Nov. 15 and the state legislature has failed to call a special session to extend the order, despite efforts from Oklahoma House Majority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman).
Clark said she is especially concerned about moving meetings back in-person, as doing so puts councilmembers and Norman citizens who want to participate in city government at risk. She said she is finding it difficult to get Oklahoma’s state legislature and governor to care.
“It shouldn’t have to be this hard to do the right thing and serve your community,” Clark said. “The state legislature should be ashamed of themselves … My life is worth more than whatever you’re pondering about (concerning) the cost of a special session.”
To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Clark said she will shorten meetings to only address mission-critical agenda items, and all comments not required by law, including ones by the council, will be canceled. She also said she would like to have no study sessions and board and commission meetings unless they are mission-critical.
“How could we possibly ask our residents who are volunteering their time to risk their health for something that is not absolutely mission-critical to the city,” Clark said. “I know this seems quite severe, and it's not a decision that I am making lightly, but I don't think we have a choice at this time.”
Bierman said this is the very least the council can do to keep themselves and their staff safe.
“There is a good chance my family will not be coming here for Christmas,” Bierman said. “I’m not sick, my husband’s not sick, my daughter’s not sick — this state is sick … Let’s hope the majority of the Oklahoma state legislature falls, hits their heads, learns a lesson … (and) comes back to help our local government do what they need to do to stay safe.”
Clark said she encourages all Norman residents who are frustrated by the council’s inability to host virtual meetings to contact state legislators and the governor. She said Norman city councilmembers will do everything they can to maintain residency and community projects.