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Norman Mayor Breea Clark cautions vigilance, preps longer term plans as Cleveland County COVID-19 cases spike

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Breea Clark

Norman Mayor Breea Clark speaks at the Indigenous Peoples' Day celebration Oct. 14, 2019.

COVID-19 cases increased significantly in Cleveland County and Norman on Thursday, six days after Norman moved into Phase 1B of its social distancing plan.

According to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health, Cleveland County went from two new COVID-19 cases on May 20 to 10 new cases on May 21. Norman accounts for four of those new cases. Norman’s current three-day average — the metric city officials most commonly highlight — of 2 new cases per day is the highest it’s been since April 30, when Norman averaged 2.33 new cases.

“While I’m not surprised by the increase in numbers, I’m certainly not panicking yet,” Norman Mayor Breea Clark said. “But I do hope that residents are paying attention and see the numbers go up, because I think that'll help remind them to take it seriously. We've got to remain vigilant as we move forward.”

Clark said she plans for an update Friday from the Cleveland County Health Department about the status of the department’s contact tracing capacity. She said the availability of contact tracing will determine whether the city is prepared for OU students to return to campus this fall, and she expressed concern about risks associated with large gatherings, including most prominently OU football games. 

“I think the number (of cases that would indicate a crisis) would come down to what our contact tracers can handle,” Clark said. “That's why the update from the health department is going to be very, very important tomorrow, because we have to be able to trace it. And the people that potentially were exposed need to isolate.”

“Having 80,000 people right next to each other is a terrifying concept to me at this time,” Clark said. “And if you didn't let them in the stadium, what would they do? Tailgate? Then it becomes the city's problem and that also terrifies me. So if we take away tailgating, what are they going to do, hang out in bars and be in close quarters?”

Clark first announced a shelter-in-place order on March 25, which asked Norman residents to stay at home except for “essential activities.” 

Clark then announced Norman’s Healthier at Home three-tiered social distancing plan on April 28. Phase 1A of the plan began May 1, which reopened restaurant dining rooms by reservation and retail stores at limited capacity with increased social distancing and sanitation guidelines.

Clark amended the plan May 8 to include reopening places of worship and entertainment venues, after U.S. Attorney Timothy Downing said Norman could face potential First Amendment violations by preventing the free exercise of religion.

Clark said she thought reopening places of worship and entertainment venues preemptively — a move urged by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter — could have influenced the recent spike.

“There’s a lot of things (that) opened up before I wanted them to,” Clark said. “I tried. So I can always point to that, but … we can’t be on hold forever. We just need people to continue to take this seriously.”

Norman moved into Phase 1B of its Healthier at Home social distancing plan May 15. This most recent phase reopened playgrounds, basketball courts and dog parks, allowed for organized youth sports and increased occupancy limits in retail stores from 30 to 50 percent.

Norman is set to move to Phase 2 on May 29 and to Phase 3 on June 12. In Phase 2, community pools and bars can open with limited capacity, and summer camps can open with sanitation and social distancing guidelines. In Phase 3, residents may resume visiting nursing homes, organized youth sports can play games, and businesses will have updated sanitation and social distancing guidelines.

Oklahoma experienced a sharp spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations, from 167 on May 19 to 209 on May 20. While Oklahoma hospitalizations have dropped to 201 according to Thursday’s data, there have also been 5 more COVID-19 deaths in Oklahoma. 

Oklahoma also experienced a sharp single-day spike in COVID-19 cases, from 43 on May 20 to 148 on May 21. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a press conference Wednesday current COVID-19 data “still looks really good to continue through Phase 2,” and Oklahomans are “learn(ing) how to live with (COVID-19), and Oklahomans are leading the nation and doing that better than anybody.”

Cleveland County Commissioner Rod Cleveland also spoke at the press conference and said Cleveland County was almost up to 90 percent recovery. Wednesday, the county’s recovery rate was 89 percent. Thursday, it dropped to 87 percent.

Clark said while she acknowledges how difficult quarantining, social distancing and using personal protective equipment can be, these efforts are still going to be necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 for the foreseeable future.

“I think we were desperate to get back to life as normal, not just because of the economy, but because of our way of life,” Clark — who filed a police report May 14 after receiving death threats from the “Reopen Norman” Facebook page — said. “And this has been very challenging, and it's nice to have a little taste of normalcy. But nothing is normal right now and I need people to remember that.”

Beth Wallis is a senior journalism major and political science minor, and news managing editor for The Daily. Previously, she worked as a junior news reporter covering university research.

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