The Republican Party of Tulsa County is defending its decision to hold a large, indoor event earlier this week on the evening of Election Day, even as COVID-19 infections and deaths are surging and as local health officials and hospital leaders are pleading with county residents to take more responsibility to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus.
Party Chair Bob Jack said Thursday that he disagreed with the notion that Tuesday's party at the Stoney Creek Hotel and Conference Center, attended by hundreds including Sen. Jim Inhofe and Rep. Kevin Hern, was risky, despite Tulsa Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart cautioning against indoor gatherings of more than 10 people.
"I just don't think the risk was there. That's my position," Jack said. "If there was a risk, there was a minimal risk, and I think the people that went there and participated and felt there was a risk felt it was well worth the risk of going to that event."
Jack said he disputed a report from KOCO News' Zach Rael that Jack said there were no COVID precautions taken at the event.
"There were hand sanitizers. People were asked if they wanted to wear masks. They could. That's a personal choice," Jack said. He said many attendees Tuesday chose not to wear them, including Broken Arrow Mayor Craig Thurmond. (The city of Broken Arrow does not have a mandatory mask ordinance.)
Jack said he told Rael that requiring masks of attendees would have been "a Democratic thing."
The C.D.C, the Tulsa Health Department, and President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence's White House coronavirus task force all recommend masks be worn at all times in public settings because of significant levels of transmission by asymptomatic carriers.
Jack, who told Public Radio Tulsa Thursday that he was sick with a "head cold," dismissed the idea that the GOP event could help spread the virus further in the greater community.
"Yeah, that's if someone in that room has it. You don't know that, do you?" Jack said.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, perhaps the most prominent area Republican in favor of mask mandates, said in a statement that the notion that masks are somehow a Democratic or Republican position is wrong.
"One of the great unnecessary challenges of this pandemic has been the willingness of some to make it partisan. It is not," Bynum said. "As someone who believes every life is sacred, I think we have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable. Wearing a mask is one way we can protect our neighbors from a virus that does not care about their partisan affiliation.”
Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith, a Democrat who battled the virus herself along with her husband, who required medical treatment for it, said she was disappointed by Jack's remarks.
"It has nothing to do with being a Democrat, it has nothing to do with being a Republican. I think we've seen the results of that. Everybody has been affected by this," Keith said.
"You can thumb your nose at the science, but there are consequences," she said.
The Oklahoma Democratic Party also held an in-person Election Day watch party event in Tulsa County. That event, which Keith attended, was outdoors at Tulsa's ONEOK Field, and the vast majority of attendees wore masks.
Dr. Joshua Gentges, an emergency medicine physician and professor at the Oklahoma University Department of Emergency Medicine who recently published an op-ed in the Tulsa World asking people to stay away from large indoor gatherings, told Public Radio Tulsa of the GOP event: "This virus doesn't care if you're a Republican, or a Democrat, or what color of the rainbow you are. If you congregate indoors with others, without wearing masks and social distancing, you put them and yourself at risk. Please don't."
Dr. George Monks, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, shared a similar statement.
"This virus doesn’t care about party politics, only about who it can spread to next. COVID has not only infected thousands of Oklahomans, but it has impacted us all. And we all have a responsibility to ourselves and others to take safety precautions, such as mask wearing. The more quickly we can all do this, the more quickly we can defeat this disease," Monks said.
In the most recent report for Oklahoma from the Trump White House, dated Sunday and released by the state health department on Wednesday, Pence's team says Oklahomans should "not gather without a mask with individuals living outside of your household; always wear a mask in public places; [and] stop gatherings beyond immediate household until cases and test positivity decrease significantly."
In a press release from the Tulsa Health Department and leaders from four Tulsa hospitals on Oct. 30, Dart said, "We are losing the battle against COVID in Oklahoma, in both rural and metropolitan areas." He attributes major increases in infections, hospitalizations and deaths to indoor gatherings.