With COVID-19 infection rates soaring both in Tulsa County and statewide, Mayor G.T. Bynum struck a familiar note at a Wednesday press conference, exhorting Tulsans to wear masks while also maintaining that he does not believe a policy requiring them is currently necessary.
"The reason we haven't done it yet to date is because we have not been told that there is just no other option and we have to do it," Bynum said.
Bynum has previously said he would implement such a policy if advised to do so by Dr. Bruce Dart, director of the Tulsa Health Department.
Dart said he wants to wait before making that recommendation.
"We need to give it at least a couple more days to really see if the trend is going where we think it's going," Dart said. "I mean, we've had almost 500 cases in the last two days. So if that continues over the next couple days, our decision will be made for us."
Dart said there's no one metric he and the health department will use to make a final determination, but rather a combination of factors like hospitalization numbers, percent of tests coming back positive, total case count, and 4- and 7-day rolling averages.
"It's data, and data tells us what we should do," Dart said.
Bynum repeatedly stressed that putting a strain on law enforcement is one reason he would prefer to avoid issuing a mandate.
"If you put an order in, you have to enforce it," Bynum said.
"Don't wait for Dr. Dart to say that we have no other option and ask local governments to put in an order, and then put that tremendous responsibility on local law enforcement," Bynum said. "Step up and do it yourselves."
Bynum said that a mask ordinance would not be "a simple one-liner," and would have to foresee a number of questions, including who would qualify for exemptions, and whether the policy would be enforceable at the individual or business level, among others.
"When you look at these orders that have been put in place in states across the country -- and by and large, by the way, these are usually state-driven, not cities having to do it on their own," Bynum said. (Gov. Kevin Stitt, a fellow Republican, has vowed that he will not consider a mandatory mask policy for Oklahoma.)
State and local governments around the country, including the state of Texas and the city of Norman, Okla., have implemented mask requirements in recent days and weeks. On Tuesday, the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes for Health, urged all local governments to introduce mandatory mask policies.
Bynum said a return to a strict shelter-in-place order also remains on the table, but only if the local outbreak reaches the point where there is simply "no other choice." Last week, Bynum ordered Tulsa restaurant and bar employees, but not guests, to wear masks.
Oklahoma and Tulsa County have both broken records in recent days for single-day increases in confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 7-day rolling average of cases. Tulsa County reports more than 1,000 active infections. Hospitalizations are also at their highest point statewide since early April. As of Tuesday, due to the severity of Oklahoma's outbreak, residents visiting the state of New York are required to complete a 14-day quarantine upon arrival.
The pandemic is so far known to have claimed the lives of 72 Tulsa County residents, 407 Oklahomans, and more than 131,000 Americans.