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One Year Into Pandemic, Broken Arrow City Council Narrowly Approves Resolution Encouraging Masks

Broken Arrow City Council
Broken Arrow City Councilor Christi Gillespie voted against Tuesday's resolution to encourage the wearing of masks to slow the spread of COVID-19. She said she would no longer urge citizens to follow best public health practices around masking.

At a meeting repeatedly disrupted by anti-mask hecklers, the Broken Arrow City Council voted 3-2 Tuesday evening to adopt a non-binding resolution simply encouraging residents to wear masks in public to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Mayor Craig Thurmond, long opposed to a mandatory mask ordinance as well as to a similar non-binding resolution brought previously, cast the tie-breaking vote to pass the measure.

"The reason I put it on the agenda is this is not the same resolution as the one before," Thurmond said to jeers from the crowd, many of whom opposed even the encouragement to wear masks included in the resolution. "No, it is not. Stop. Stop. I'm talking right now."

Thurmond explained the Tuesday resolution no longer had language that could be perceived as putting a mask mandate on businesses, or encouraging businesses to institute mask mandates, which the previous resolution put forth in January did.

Councilor Johnnie Parks, the lone member of the council who has long supported a mandatory mask policy, said the resolution was good governance, if late to arrive.

"The pressure that I count was that we've had 15,601 infections in the City of Broken Arrow and we've had 140 of our citizens die in the City of Broken Arrow," Parks said. "And I have to live with that each and every council meeting, or week, when I look over this, and those are citizens that -- I knew a lot of them, because I've lived here a number of years. So, that's where I'm getting my pressure, is that we needed to be doing something, I felt like."

Councilor Debra Wimpee, a long-time opponent of mask measures brought before the council, said she opposed Tuesday's resolution because she was concerned journalists would incorrectly report the non-binding resolution was a mandate.

"I agree with people having the right to wear a mask if they'd like to," Wimpee said. "And I encourage them to do their part, and if they want to wear a mask they can wear a mask if they can wear a mask. Not everyone can wear a mask."

Councilor Christi Gillespie, who has also been a reliable vote on the council against proposed mask policies, said she thought it was wrong for the council to even consider the resolution because she does not believe it's the city's role to encourage citizens to act one way or another.

"The whole point of the 'encouraging' thing, that is so condescending to me," she said. "I mean, I'm not going to encourage you to do anything. I'm not going to encourage you to wear a condom the next time you have sex, because, you know what, you could get a disease from that. I'm not going to encourage you to not drink, because you could overindulge. And I'm not going to encourage you to put something on your face."

"I'm tired of bringing this issue into our council and all the divisiveness this has caused in our city, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for continuing to do this to our people," Gillespie said, adding the council has "so many more important things."

Gillespie said her grandson is "terrified" of people who wear masks, which she views as a good thing.

"I want him to be, because I'm over it," Gillespie said.

"We make ourselves look like a joke" by considering public health policies like masking at council meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gillespie said.

She also said that if the resolution passed, she would no longer urge people to follow public health guidance around masking.

"I will be that person out there saying 'I don't encourage y'all to do anything,' because now I feel like I need to. Now I feel like I'm going to have to say that. Whereas before I would have said, 'You know what, I encourage you to be safe, you know, with your family if you have people that are at risk, compromised.'

"But now I'm going to feel the opposite. I'm going to feel like I need to say, 'I have no part of this. I don't encourage anything.' I mean, just, because, to get that word out there, that I am voting no and people are going to think I voted yes. And some people are going to think I voted for a mandate, or y'all voted for a mandate, even though you say you didn't, because no one is reading the resolution," Gillespie said, referring to the non-binding resolution that contains no language suggesting any mandate regarding masks.

At one point, the meeting was forced to recess because of loud outbursts, including one attendee interrupting Vice Mayor Scott Eudey to scream, falsely, that "the science says the masks don't work!"

After Wimpee and Gillespie voted 'no' and Parks and Eudey voted 'yes,' Thurmond cast a 'yes' vote to pass the resolution, resulting in over a minute of yelling and heckling.

"Communist!" one attendee screamed. "Go back to China, you commie," another yelled. "You are disgusting! How dare you!" another shouted.

"It's worse than I thought," Parks said during the heckling, causing Eudey to laugh.

"You think this is funny, Scott? Is this funny to you? I don't think it's funny," Gillespie snapped at Eudey. 

Broken Arrow remains the largest city in Oklahoma to have never implemented a mask mandate during the pandemic, which has killed more than 7,000 Oklahomans.

Last night's resolution took effect immediately. All citizens of and visitors to Broken Arrow are now formally encouraged to properly wear a mask in public.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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