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Norman City Council Member Kate Bierman expresses worries about game day occupancy limits for restaurants, bars

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Norman City Council Meeting 9/8/20 (copy)

The Norman City Council meeting streamed live on YouTube Sept. 8.

Ward 1 council member Kate Bierman explained on Thursday that while she's in support of limiting restaurant and bar capacities on OU football home game days, she doesn't think a cap at 75 percent capacity is low enough.

Norman City Council voted yes Tuesday on an amendment to limit bars and restaurants to 75 percent capacity for OU home game days. The amendment originally limited them to 50 percent.

The vote was approved 7-1 with only Kate Bierman voting no on the amendment. 

As of Sept. 10, Norman has 679 estimated active cases of COVID-19 with the 7-day rolling average at 57.62 new cases per 100,000 residents, according to the city's COVID-19 dashboard. Also on Sept. 10, Norman recorded its second-highest daily increase in COVID-19 cases, with 109 new cases reported.

Bierman said the way the city ordinance was previously worded brought bars and restaurants down to approximately 50 percent on home game days. The amendment up for a vote Tuesday was to formally put the hard language into the ordinance. 

For non-game days, there is no occupancy limit for bars and restaurants, but all seating must be arranged to promote social distancing, which is defined as six feet apart according to the ordinance.

“We originally had decided … that formalizing that 50 percent capacity on game days would be the best way to protect students, protect Norman residents who also want to go out and participate in activities on game day and also to protect the businesses and the employees of those businesses,” Bierman said. 

Bierman said the city council and the Campus Corner Merchants Association had been working together on policies that would allow for reduced capacity indoors while also supporting small businesses.  

“Instead, we went the other direction and said ‘Let’s have even more people inside than we allow any other day of the week.’” Bierman said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the councilmembers had back-and-forth discussions that led to the amendment’s final form.  

Ward 8 councilmember Matthew Peacock initially proposed an amendment to allow businesses to exceed 50 percent capacity if they were able to rearrange their tables to promote distancing. 

Ward 3 councilmember Alison Petrone then suggested a 50 percent limit indoors and 75 percent limit outdoors. 

Mayor Breea Clark finally proposed the 75 percent limit both indoors and outdoors, which the council adopted. 

Bierman said the council has been discussing game day preparations over the last few weeks while also recognizing how important these days are for Norman businesses. 

“The concern that we all had up until Tuesday night is that we’re seeing our case rate continuing to increase to unsafe levels,” Bierman said. “And if it continues to rise, then OU might end up going all virtual, and then the students that live out-of-town or out-of-state might decide to just go home and finish their semester there, which would have been even worse for our local businesses.”

Bierman said the amendment capping capacity at 75 percent is not in the best interest of public health or students who want to remain on campus for the semester. 

“I was very surprised when I was the only one who voted against this amendment because the amendment seemed to run counter to all of the targeted outcomes that we were looking for,” Bierman said, “which is reducing our case rate, reducing our percent positive tests and ensuring that OU stays open for the rest of the semester so that we can continue to support our local businesses.”  

Bierman said the amendment changing capacities 50 to 75 percent effectively raises the occupancy level within these bars and restaurants. 

“My worry is that the intended outcomes were lost in that discussion,” Bierman said. “Allowing people to go out on game day and allowing these businesses the traffic they need in order to survive was not appropriately counterbalanced with the impact on public health that we know will happen.”

Bierman said she is worried about the environment in bars and restaurants on game days. 

“It just feels, to me, like a recipe for our own little, local super-spreader event,” Bierman said. 

Bierman said this amendment has a big impact on the ward she represents because Ward 1 residents typically have the lowest income and the least access to affordable healthcare, paid time off or the ability to quarantine.

“It’s very difficult for service workers to take the time off that they need in order to ensure that they are not sick,” Bierman said.

Bierman is also concerned about the high student population in Ward 1.

Ward 1 and Ward 7 have the highest student populations in Norman, Bierman said. Ward 7 includes the OU campus, all residential housing and a majority of Greek organization housing. 

Bierman said she respects and appreciates the other councilmembers’ perspectives about the public health consequences of the amendment, but ultimately, she disagrees.

“None of these factors led me to think the 75-percent capacity on game day was a good idea,” Bierman said. 

Editor's note: This story was updated at 12:48 p.m. on Sept. 10 to update the Norman seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases to 57.62 and include daily case data from Sept. 10.

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Jordan Hayden is a journalism junior and a senior news reporter at The Daily. Previously she served as the fall 2018 and spring 2019 assistant engagement editor.

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