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Black Lives Matter message to be erased, Tulsa officials say: 'There is just not an alternative'

The massive “Black Lives Matter” street sign painted in bright yellow letters on historic Greenwood Avenue is going away.

And there will be no “Back the Blue” street sign, either.

City councilors agreed Wednesday that the legal obstacles and practical implications of allowing such signs would not make good public policy. In fact, councilors were informed, the street signs aren’t legal in the city.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Mark Swiney told councilors that although they have the authority to approve temporary street closings for events, “there really isn’t anything in our laws that make a street into canvas to convey a message or to essentially make a sign out of a street surface.”

City Attorney David O’Meilia said that if councilors allowed one message on a street they would have to allow them all.

“There is a constitutional issue that goes on around this, that if you permit that kind of thing … then you would open any street in your community to any type of message that wasn’t pornographic or inciting a riot,” O’Meilia said.

Should the city allow the “Black Lives Matter” sign to remain in place, O’Meilia said, it could face arguments in court that the sign had been tacitly approved.

“Some applicant can come in and attempt to make the case the city is permitting that sign there and therefore they can paint whatever they want on the street,” he said.

Councilor Connie Dodson said she had no problem with the message behind the “Black Lives Matter” sign.

“But (as) this discussion has shown, it is kind of a slippery slope when it gets into that kind of activity,” Dodson said.

Councilor Phil Lakin compared the street sign issue to the one he faced several years ago in establishing a “litter-on-a-stick” ordinance that regulated vertical signs in rights of way. In that instance, Lakin said, the city did not try to distinguish between what signs were good and what signs were not.

“When we went through and created that ordinance, we had to treat every single one of those signs the same, constitutionally and from all different kinds of aspects,” he said. “So I think messages on a right of way, … a painting on a street, it should be treated the same; otherwise, we get in a really, really bad position of having to regulate what messages are OK and what messages aren’t OK, and I don’t want to be in that business.”

The Mayor’s Office said late Wednesday that it did not have a time or date for when the “Black Lives Matter” would be removed.

Dodson asked the City Attorney’s Office to draft an ordinance “that would prohibit this type of free speech on our sidewalks and streets so that it is clear and then we don’t have the ambiguity anymore.”

A group of activists painted the street sign without the city’s permission just before Juneteenth and the arrival of President Donald Trump for a rally at the BOK Center. That prompted a group of local Republicans to seek permission from the city to paint a “Back the Blue” sign on a city street.

It was that request that led councilors back to the “Black Lives Matter” sign on Wednesday.

“Is there a legal route for them to be able to do this?” Councilor Cass Fahler asked on behalf of the applicants.

City Traffic Engineer Kurt Kraft said the city faced a similar situation in 2018 when the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center on Fourth Street wanted to paint crosswalks in the area rainbow colors. But the application was rejected because Federal Highway Administration regulations prohibit decorative crosswalks because it compromises safety.

Kraft said the “Black Lives Matter” presents similar concerns.

“If there is an accident, it opens the city to liability if we consciously violate the rules because it is codified in state and federal law,” Kraft said.

Kraft said he was told not to remove the “Black Lives Matter” sign until the City Council could meet with the Mayor’s Office to discuss how to move forward.

Mayoral Chief of Staff Jack Blair told councilors the city was “caught in a quandary.”

“It’s kind of an all-or-nothing question,” he said.

If the city made its street surfaces a public forum, it would have to do so for everyone, he said, while at the same not violating FHA regulations.

“That would be a very tough kind of needle to thread to try to come up with something like that,” Blair said.

At the end of the meeting, Blair acknowledged that the city had few options and would have to remove the “Black Lives Matter” sign.

“I think I am getting a consensus from this that there is not a desire to kind of overcome the difficulty of trying to kind of thread this needle and develop a permit for this kind of use anywhere — I am not talking about anything specifically — so I think with that kind of general guidance, we have what we need to go ahead and address that,” Blair said. “It won’t be popular, but I think we have all heard there is just not an alternative from a legal perspective.”

Briana Shea helped lead the effort to get the “Black Lives Matter” words painted. She and dozens of volunteers worked overnight to create the 250-foot-long sign.

“I am kind of disappointed that it was left up to a city vote, not a community vote, because it was all based around community and community (donated) dollars, not city dollars,” Shea said. “I would have preferred they would have had a town hall meeting and we do a community vote on it, but we didn’t get that opportunity.”

Shea said she thought the sign brought a lot of healing to the community during the tense days surrounding Trump’s visit to Tulsa.

“Having that painted there as Trump flew into Tulsa and he was able to see that, I think it says a lot about Tulsa and our history here and how we are not proud of the history but we wanted to make it known that 99 years later we’re still healing from it, and I thought that mural that we did did bring healing,” Shea said.

“It didn’t solve any problems whatsoever, … but at least we put the time and effort in it to give love back to the community, and that love was felt by the community.”

Related video: ‘Back the Blue’ art sought after message painted along Black Wall Street

Gallery: Black Lives Matter painted overnight in Tulsa’s Greenwood District

Gallery: 'Black Lives Matter' painted overnight on street in Tulsa's Greenwood District

Broken Arrow plans for in-person start to school year Aug. 19; masks required for grades 3 and up

Editor's note: This story was updated after publication with comments from the board member who chose not to wear a mask during the meeting.

BROKEN ARROW — The Broken Arrow Public Schools Board of Education on Wednesday approved a plan to start the school year in person on Aug. 19.

All employees and students in third grade and higher will be required to wear masks in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 as they return to the classroom next month. Those who are uncomfortable with attending school in person will be able to sign up for the district’s virtual academy until Aug. 5.

Superintendent Janet Vinson said the mask mandate doesn’t affect younger students because the district’s medical consultant explained that they are at lower risk because they don’t have the lung capacity to expel or inhale the virus as adults do.

Broken Arrow decided against starting the school year through distance learning like some other districts, including Tulsa Public Schools, because there was no state directive to do so, Vinson said.

She added that the decision not to proceed with a hybrid model, where students are split into two groups that take turns engaging in distance learning, stemmed from a district survey that showed a majority of the community desired 100% in-person instruction. But nearly 41% of respondents favored some form of splitting students, compared to 49% that favored complete face-to-face learning.

“These aren’t easy decisions,” Vinson said. “... It’s a no-win situation for us. Regardless of what we decide, we know we’re going to make at least 50% of the people unhappy. So we have to divert back to what is the best for our entire community, and every community is different.”

The district’s Aug. 19 start date is dependent on whether the city of Broken Arrow is in the “red zone,” which is dictated by rate of spread, on Aug. 10. Broken Arrow has recorded the third-highest number of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma since the start of the pandemic.

Classrooms for second grade and lower will transition to distance learning for 14 days if a student or teacher is infected with COVID-19. If there is an infection in a classroom requiring masks (third grade and up), the class will remain in session while school officials engage in contract tracing for that individual.

A school building will shut down and transition to distance learning for two weeks only when there are infections in 30% of its classrooms.

The school district has developed multiple safety phases that will be utilized throughout the year. The first nine weeks will be spent in the orange phase, which calls for full safety precautions and restrictions on large student assemblies.

All guests will be subjected to a temperature scan before entering a school building, though students will not have to undergo the checks.

If the risk of spread significantly reduces during those initial nine weeks, the district will transition to the yellow phase. The main difference, Vinson said, is that some large assemblies would be allowed — though mask requirements still would be in effect.

After yellow is the green phase, during which most restrictions are lifted and masks become optional.

Board member Brandy Roulet said she’s seen social media posts from families who have decried the use of masks if they became mandated by the district. She implored them to “put the good of many above maybe your antimask view” and to think about students and employees who are immunocompromised and have underlying health issues that prevent them from wearing masks.

“We need to get through these first nine weeks to try to get out of the orange, and we just need everyone’s help to do that,” Roulet said. “It’s not ideal, obviously, that all of us have to wear masks all the time, but if it can get our kiddos back in school and get all the services they need, the extracurriculars they need, the in-person instruction, then we just have to do it.”

Board President Steve Allen, who did not wear a mask during the meeting, said that policing masks can't be the No. 1 priority and that the district shouldn't discipline students who wear them incorrectly. 
"Our priority is educating the kids here and doing our best to keep them safe," Allen said. "So hopefully we'll police masking positively and not punitively."

20 quotes from Oklahoma educators on going back to school during a pandemic

20 quotes from Oklahoma educators on going back to school during a pandemic

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COVID-19 test results taking longer as state sees 'fairly dramatic increase' in demand in recent weeks

Testing for COVID-19 appears to have bogged down as turnaround time for results in some places reaches more than seven days.

Earlier in the pandemic turnaround times were up to a mere 48 hours.

Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief quality officer at OU Medicine, said there has been a “fairly drastic increase” in the number of tests being done during the last several weeks.

“Some of the reference labs, particularly those that send testing out of state, have had some challenges, and some have had delays of seven to 10 days,” Bratzler said during a virtual briefing for the media on Wednesday.

“There are spots in the state where it looks like the delay from the day the test is taken to when the result comes out has gone out longer, and that likely reflects either problems with personnel or the actual reagents you need to run the tests.”

In May, about 6,500 specimens were collected per week. In June, it was about 6,800 specimens per week, according to Oklahoma State Department of Health data collected by the Tulsa World.

In July, an average of 12,275 COVID-19 specimens have been collected weekly.

Bratzler said weekly positivity rates for testing have fluctuated around 10%, a far cry from the low rates seen in May. There was only a 1.8% positivity rate the week of May 25.

“When you see a higher percent positive test rate, that means there is community spread of the virus,” Bratzler said. “It is true in Oklahoma now, particularly over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a fairly dramatic increase in the number of tests done, and there’s a big demand to get tests because a lot of people are calling these centers and asking to get tests done.”

And demand is likely to see another increase as schools and colleges look toward the fall semester. Oklahoma State University, the University of Tulsa and the University of Oklahoma will require students moving into dorms to be tested.

OSU will also require students moving into Greek housing to be tested, and TU will require tests of all students who plan to take in-person classes.

Some public school districts are still weighing whether to return to in-person instruction. Some have developed hybrid plans. And some have planned to head directly back to class.

“Delayed testing results can have a significant impact on our ability to isolate a patient with a positive test, and to do the appropriate contact tracing, testing, and isolation of anyone around that person who may have been exposed or infected,” Bratzler said. “To appropriately do contact tracing, you need to intervene as soon as you can after the positive test is reported.”

While public health officials have acknowledged some difficulty in acquiring reagents, the materials used to test specimens, the human component to testing could be the greater cause for delays.

Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart, during a COVID-19 briefing last week, said the department and laboratories would “love to expand capacity.”

“They have to have the reagents and materials to do that, but, more importantly, we have to have the bodies to expand capacity,” Dart said. “We can get the material, but we have to have people who can actually run the test.”

Oklahoma has made significant leaps in its testing capabilities. In the early days in March, the state had only 500 test kits on hand.

As of Tuesday, medical personnel and lab technicians in the state had conducted more than 613,000 tests, and the mantra has shifted from testing only the most vulnerable populations to testing everyone, regardless of symptoms.

State Health Commissioner Lance Frye, during a COVID-19 briefing earlier this month, said the state is working to expand testing capacity.

“Our public health professionals are working around the clock to identify cases and hot spots and are responding with increased testing and support in those areas as needed,” Frye said then.

State Health Department staff and laboratory personnel meet weekly on the matter and have been discussing how to increase capacity for testing. Bratzler said labs are acquiring additional testing equipment and expanding testing site access. Additionally, federal regulators are reviewing rapid, home-based kits.

“It is possible that there will be low-cost alternatives to laboratory testing by the end of the year,” Bratzler said. “These home tests are not quite as sensitive as lab-based tests but are inexpensive enough to be done frequently.”

Video: Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum gives an update on the city’s COVID-19 situation.

COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues.

COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues

U.S. House panel says Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt ignored White House guidance to stop coronavirus spread

OKLAHOMA CITY — The leader of a U.S. House subcommittee said Wednesday that Gov. Kevin Stitt ignored recommendations from the White House Coronavirus Task Force to stop the spread of the virus and asked him to produce documents about the guidance his administration received.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said in a letter to Stitt that while the White House task force “has apparently provided Oklahoma with private suggestions concerning public health measures designed to stop the spread of the virus, the state has not implemented many of these recommendations — and instead appears to be following the contradictory public messaging coming from the Administration.”

The House subcommittee was created in April and operates under the umbrella of the House Oversight Committee.

Clyburn’s letter references a report prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, dated July 26.

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Gallery: COVID-19 basics

COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues