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Without The Votes For Emergency Mask Requirement, Tulsa Council Pivots To Resolution

Matt Trotter

Updated Aug. 25, 11:35 p.m.

Lacking the votes to immediately implement a new mask mandate, Tulsa city councilors supporting the proposal asked their colleagues on Wednesday to join them on a nonbinding resolution strongly encouraging people to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That resolution passed unanimously Wednesday night.

CDC guidance includes wearing masks in public indoor settings regardless of vaccination status because of substantial local spread of COVID-19. The resolution also strongly encourages all Tulsa residents 12 and up to get vaccinated.

The proposed mask requirement would have applied to people 4 years and older. A procedural motion to vote on it at a special meeting last week fell one vote short. On Wednesday night, the proposed mandate was tabled until Dec. 1, which allows the council to bring it up for a vote at any time they believe conditions warrant it.

Despite the mandate being tabled, opponents disrupted the council meeting several times. At one point, police led a man out of the council chambers in handcuffs. The meeting started late because several people refused to wear masks, a requirement inside city hall.

Nearly two dozen citizens signed up to speak both for and against masks.

Councilor Kara Joy McKee, one of the three councilors to introduce the new ordinance, said in a morning committee meeting it seems the loudest, angriest voices opposing a mask requirement are being heard over most Tulsans.

"There is a political candidate from Owasso who has been whipping people up all over northeastern Oklahoma to contact us. My council aide even had someone call yesterday, pretend she was one of Councilor Hall-Harper's constituents then pretend to be one of mine, get off the phone and call back 15, 20 minutes later to admit that she lied," McKee said.

McKee was referring to Jackson Lahmeyer, a Republican challenging incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. James Lankford. Lahmeyer made and subsequently deleted a Facebook post recently encouraging his supporters to fight any new city mask mandate. The posts used rhetoric similar to former President Donald Trump's ahead of his supporters invading the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 because they believed his lies that widespread election fraud caused him to lose.

Lahmeyer constantly spreads misinformation about the pandemic and the 2020 election.

City Councilor Phil Lakin supported and helped craft the city’s previous mask mandate, which expired in April. But he has been hesitant to back the new one, saying the Delta variant drives spikes with steep inclines and steep declines and that the latest data shows new cases and hospitalizations starting to fall in Tulsa County.

"There's an equal side just as interested in masking. And they're whipping things up, and they're very interested in making sure people show up in the council chambers tonight. And so, there's just two very different opinions on this, and it's highly, highly divisive," Lakin said.

Tulsa County had just over 2,400 cases reported last week, down from more than 2,700 the week before and the first decline in almost three months. Public health experts continue to recommend a layered approach to preventing the spread of COVID, including vaccination, wearing masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing.

Councilor Mykey Arthrell-Knezek said one week of improvement isn’t enough to go on.

"We are kidding ourselves when we're saying that this is getting better. I don't know — like, that feels delusional when you're about to have all these kids going back to school and doing all these activities that they haven't been doing," Arthrell-Knezek said.

Council Chair Vanessa Hall-Harper, also among the councilors who introduced the proposed new mandate, said a resolution is not enough, even if it has unanimous support.

"Nothing is indicating to me and I think to average citizens that this is going to change just because just we're going to say, 'Oh, well, if you want to get the vaccine, get the vaccine,' or, 'If you want to wear a mask, wear the mask,'" Hall-Harper said.

Business support for a new mask mandate was also at issue. Ten Tulsa breweries asked the council to pass it, but Councilor Connie Dodson said she's heard from business owners who don't want it.

"I've been approached by many of them that are, like, 'We're not going to enforce this. We are not going to put our [employees] on the front line to enforce a mask mandate. We're not going to put them in that battle zone where they're going to be spat at and potential assaults and things like that,'" Dodson said.

The council resolution does state businesses are free to require masks and call the police to report customers who don’t comply as trespassers.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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