While Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and Tulsa Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart were clear that they believe Tulsans should be following the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommending universal masking regardless of vaccination status due to the current surge in COVID-19 infections, neither would comment Thursday on whether they support an ordinance currently working its way through the city council that would mandate the wearing of them.
"I am talking with local health care leaders and my City Council colleagues every day about the evolving threat and what we should do in response to it," Bynum said during a virtual press briefing. "The City Council has a vote next Wednesday. As I continue to work with the Council on the City’s response, I will not have any comment on their upcoming vote until next Wednesday. There is a deliberative process under way, and in my experience those are best conducted directly rather than through the media."
"I absolutely think that it's time to always be masked outdoors, always be masked at public indoor locations," Dart said. "And I don't want to speak for the city council, but I think every city councilor agrees that people should be masked. Now, you put that word 'mandate' behind this conversation, the conversation kind of goes off the very deep end. You know, absolutely we need to be masked, but we need to be passionate, too, about vaccinations, masking, hand washing and distancing as well."
Bynum said that he met on Monday for three hours with officials from three hospital systems which he declined to name. One told him, he said, that they supported the mandate, but two told him that they believed a new mask mandate would be actually harmful to Tulsans.
"The logic behind that was a couple of things," Bynum said. "One: not believing it would necessarily have an impact, that the overall population that you're seeing in our hospitals in Tulsa that's actually coming from the city of Tulsa that would be impacted by an ordinance adopted in the city of Tulsa is between 30-35%. And so there was concern about having a divisive vote that would come up that would divide people who are otherwise, I think, in agreement. To Dr. Dart's point a moment ago, I don't want to speak for my colleagues, but I would note that all nine city councilors were wearing masks at their meeting on Monday night, so I think there is general agreement that people need to have masks on in alignment with CDC guidance indoors.
"The question, as Dr. Dart just pointed out, is when you bring up a mandate and implement, utilize police powers to enforce that citywide, and how does that change the dynamic? And do we even have the capacity to do that? We have about 30 less officers than we did a year ago and we have officers trying to stop a wave of violent crime in one part of our city right now," Bynum said.
The mayor also said hospital leaders told him they worried the focus on whether Tulsans should be required to wear masks was distracting from civic leaders' recommendations that all eligible residents get vaccinated.
"And if you look at the media attention that was focused around the city council meeting, I think those concerns were very well-warranted," Bynum said. "There isn't a discussion about, I believe, the unanimity among those of us at the city of Tulsa, amongst the elected officials, that people need to get vaccinated. ... Instead it was about the fight at City Hall over a mandate."
Bynum reminded businesses that they have the right to require masks inside their establishments, and that the city supports them hanging flyers to that effect and calling police to have noncompliant individuals removed for trespassing. He also noted that all employees and visitors inside City Hall must wear masks.
The city council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance at their next regular scheduled meeting on Wednesday afternoon, where they are expected to have enough votes to approve it. If approved, the ordinance would need either Bynum's approval or a two-thirds vote to override his veto following a seven-day waiting period.