Despite worsening COVID-19 numbers as the pandemic heightens to its direst point ever in Oklahoma and nationwide, the Broken Arrow City Council Tuesday showed little interest in pursuing the sort of mandatory mask ordinance passed by Tulsa, Jenks and Sapulpa, spending more time at their meeting asserting false claims about masks and the pandemic, and calling for more civility on "both sides" of the issue.
"If you want me to adopt your position, you might not want to start out by saying, 'Why are you killing people?'" said Vice Mayor Scott Eudey. "Conversely, you might not want to start out by saying, 'Why are you taking away my rights?' Neither one is going to get me all that excited about hearing your position."
"I will always err on the side of liberty, but, my God, would you please deserve it and behave appropriately?" Eudey said.
Councilor Debra Wimpee agreed that the tenor of the conversation around mask mandates, which she opposes, has grown too heated.
"It seems humanity itself has been the greatest loss in COVID lately, so, and decency," Wimpee said of the virus that is known to have killed at least 1,570 Oklahomans.
Wimpee spent much of her speaking time expressing skepticism regarding the science and data surrounding the efficacy of masks.
"I don't live in fear. This is not saving me," Wimpee said, holding a mask. "I'm just letting you know. God above protects me, not this thing."
"I've had COVID. I recovered from COVID. It wasn't fun, but I survived, and here I am, and 99% of the people who did get it did recover," Wimpee said, neglecting to address the potential long-term negative health impacts such as organ damage, chronic fatigue and trauma reported in some COVID-19 patients considered "recovered."
Wimpee also falsely claimed that the CDC says 84 or 85% of people who wear masks end up becoming infected, a bogus statistic once touted by President Trump and thoroughly debunked by CNN.
Wimpee said she had data that showed hospitalizations from COVID-19 were trending downward. Hospitalizations have been trending up for weeks, with some hospitals reporting operating intensive care units at more than 100% capacity and the state reporting record hospitalized COVID patients this week.
"To see that the hospital rates are going down, to see actual graphs that show it has gone down, but yet the media continues to say the hospital rates are going up. Well, what's true? I mean, what is it?" Wimpee said, to an "amen" from someone in attendance.
Wimpee also said those considered high-risk to suffer serious consequences from a COVID infection should be responsible for their own health.
"I think we all should get a little healthier. Why don't we all start taking vitamins and take care of ourselves? And if you are overweight and have autoimmune disease and have issues and asthma and all these things that can cause you to possibly not make it through COVID, then stay inside," Wimpee said. (Many of the nearly 250,000 Americans known to have been killed by COVID had no known comorbidities or other health issues; many more were residents of correctional facilities or long-term care facilities where they had, in fact, stayed inside before becoming infected and dying.)
Councilor Christi Gillespie described any potential mask ordinance as "unenforceable."
"You cannot physically enforce it. I think it's ridiculous to think our police are going to enforce it," Gillespie said.
Gillespie expressed displeasure at a comment she said she had recently received from someone she had known since childhood.
"She said to me, 'If you cared about people, you would make a mask mandate,'" Gillespie said. "And I'm like, wow. Wow. So my whole life, everything I've done, is down to her getting her way about a mask mandate? And that is not who I am, and I'm not going to be defined by whether or not I say yes or no to a mask mandate, because guess what? All of us get to choose whether or not we put something on our face."
Mayor Craig Thurmond, who last week said he did not believe the council would pass a mask mandate and reportedly attended the Tulsa County Republican Party's large indoor gathering on Election Day while not wearing a mask, suggested the number of cases isn't the main metric to look at.
"One thing that Robert Redfield said, he's the director of the CDC, a couple months ago, was, we've got to look at the consequences, not the cases," Thurmond said. "So I do look at the hospitalizations and the deaths. I mean, that's really important. The positive tests are -- I know that our positive tests seem like they're rising, but, you know, we're seeing our hospitalizations starting to go down, and so I'm really not as concerned because of the hospitalizations."
The CDC supports mask mandates, writing in a brief that "Experimental and epidemiological data support community masking to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2. ... Adopting universal masking policies can help avert future lockdowns, especially if combined with other non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and adequate ventilation."
Mandatory mask policies are also recommended by Vice President Mike Pence's White House coronavirus task force; Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the nation's leading expert on infectious disease; and Dr. Bruce Dart, director of the Tulsa City-County Health Department.
Dr. Julie Watson, chief medical officer at Integris Health, said at a press conference earlier this month that Oklahoma State Department of Health data shows "cities [in Oklahoma] whose residents are wearing masks saw a 21 percent rise in cases, compared to an 88 percent increase in cities where residents aren’t wearing masks" since August 1.
Councilor Johnnie Parks was the lone council member to speak in favor of a mask mandate.
"[Residents] have gotten so used to not wearing masks, I think it's going to be more difficult to maintain a mask ordinance, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't do that," Parks said.
"I just think something needs to be done besides just looking at the data," Parks said.