Several city councilors said Wednesday they are concerned about Tulsa’s mask ordinance expiring April 30, but an extension is not currently on the table.
In Tulsa County, COVID-19 hospitalizations are manageable and new cases rates are back to levels seen before the ordinance was enacted last summer. Despite those trends, District 4 Councilor Kara Joy McKee is not ready to drop the mandate. Wastewater testing has detected at least one coronavirus variant in the city, and McKee said not enough people are fully vaccinated yet to get rid of a proven mitigation strategy.
"I have not heard a case made that it's actually time to set the masks down, that it's actually safe to set the masks down. I've just heard, 'Well, we were said we were gonna as soon as we could,'" McKee said.
McKee is not on the mayor-council COVID-19 working group, but District 7 Councilor Lori Decter Wright is and sat in on last week’s update from the Tulsa Health Department.
"The policy concern that I've heard is the thrust was never to get to zero cases, it was really just around hospitalizations. So, when I say it's because we said we would, those are the factors that moved this body and the mayor to put the ordinance in place in the first place," Decter Wright said.
District 9 Councilor Jayme Fowler said he plans to continue wearing a mask, but masking shouldn’t continue to be the city’s responsibility.
"Let's put a bit more of the onus and the burden on our citizen community. Self responsibility, that might be a good choice of words here," Fowler said.
District 8 Councilor Phil Lakin said the city has relied on THD throughout the pandemic.
"We're using the same people to advise us right now as we did on the very front end of this, and their advice is it's OK to let this go," Lakin said.
OSU Project ECHO faculty member Dr. Jennifer Clark told councilors wearing masks remains essential, including for those who are fully vaccinated, because of coronavirus variants.
"When we've developed immunity, the virus then tries to figure out how to get around that. So, the more opportunity we give the virus to be exposed to people who are already immune, the better chance it has to mutate," Clark said.
The mayor’s office, THD and council are developing a campaign to encourage mask wearing.
Some areas of the country are seeing cases rise again. Experts still don’t know exactly how long immunity lasts after vaccination or infection.