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Norman Mayor Breea Clark expresses concerns as students begin returning to OU amid rise in COVID-19 cases, deaths

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Breea Clark

Norman Mayor Breea Clark on June 9.

Mayor Breea Clark shared her concerns regarding the return of students to OU following the deadliest week to date from COVID-19 in Norman. 

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, the week of July 27 has seen a total of six deaths in Norman. Clark said, unfortunately, she expected this increased mortality rate amid a rise in COVID-19 cases based on past patterns of the virus. 

“I'm heartbroken and my condolences go out to the loved ones of each and every one of these victims of this horrible virus,” Clark said. “When it comes to deaths, I take it personally. We have tried very, very hard to get in front of this thing … but without a statewide response, it is not as effective as it could be.” 

Norman’s college town atmosphere creates a separate experience from neighboring cities, Clark said, as thousands of young people are beginning their return. She said although OU is doing the best it can to provide a safe learning and residential environment, she has a multitude of concerns regarding in-person classes.

“I can understand why they’re making the decision (to have in-person classes) ... but it makes me nervous — especially as a mayor of a college town,” Clark said. “It’s like picking between my children. Do I pick the economy because we rely on the university and students to be here? Or, do we pick the health of the people because we’ve seen the numbers continue to rise?”

Clark said she has worked diligently to find a balance between what would benefit both Norman’s economy and residents. She said she is continuing to try to find ways to educate incoming students on their lack of immunity to the virus and how COVID-19 could be especially deadly to people with underlying health conditions. 

Education, however, can only do so much to prevent students from meeting up with each other, Clark said. She said she is fearful for the safety of professors and teachers as students could be asymptomatic — which OU’s Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said makes up 40 percent of all COVID-19 carriers.

“These young people are adults — they do have lives off-campus, and that is the part that makes me very nervous and (that) OU can't control,” Clark said. “They increased move-in dates and moved them up so they could be phased out in a responsible way … but that means some students will be in Norman for a full two weeks with no classes. Like what do we expect them to do?”

Although preventative measures like Norman City Council’s July 7 mask ordinance are being put in place, Clark said Norman’s metro-area location is preventing policies from being immediately effective. She said she thinks Norman’s situation could be significantly worse if it had not quickly implemented preventative measures.  

Bratzler reinforced Clark’s claim, saying OU’s mask requirement decreased COVID-19 positive tests in Goddard Health Center from 12 percent to 5 percent. He said preventative ordinances simply take time to become effective. 

“There's not a wall around our city, we don't live on an island,” Clark said. “It has been a very slow implementation … (but) other cities have followed Norman. I'm ready to give that some more time, but the rising numbers are terrifying. … I honestly thought we would be fine this summer, and the fact we aren't does not bode well for the fall at all.” 

Ultimately, Clark said she is confident the university will make the right decision and, for the betterment of Norman, she is reviewing COVID-19 guidance from the White House that was sent to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt. She said she is more than willing to put additional preventative measures in place and is hopeful people will respect one another by choosing to maintain physical distance.

“I know that it's hard to (distance from people) — we are social creatures by nature,” Clark said. “I miss people. I want to go to the movies, concerts, host a dinner party and hug my grandma, but I can't do that right now and I'm going to deal with it. I hope everyone remains responsible and realizes that this too shall pass. But for now, the smartest thing one can do is not just wear a mask, it's also stay away from other people because we don't know where the virus is at.”

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