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Government-and-politics
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Tulsa city councilors approve face mask ordinance

Tulsa city councilors voted 7-2 on Wednesday to approve a face covering ordinance.

Councilors Cass Fahler and Connie Dodson voted against the measure.

During Wednesday night’s meeting, councilors essentially scrapped Mayor G.T. Bynum’s proposed ordinance, which was created by the city Legal Department and the Tulsa Health Department, and replaced it with one that draws heavily from the Stillwater mask ordinance. The change was made in part because the Stillwater ordinance provided clearer definitions, councilors said.

Update: Bynum signed the ordinance shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday.

The ordinance applies to people 18 years of age and older and says those “located within Public Service Areas of Places of Public Accommodation or an Educational Building are required to wear face coverings at all times when present therein. Except as otherwise provided herein, persons in any Public Setting wherein social or physical distancing cannot be maintained are required to wear face coverings.”

The ordinance includes an exception for people eating and drinking in restaurants. People visiting a place defined as a “Public Setting,” such as workplaces, houses of worship, gyms and child care facilities, will be required to wear a mask when physical distancing cannot be maintained.

There is no specific fine or penalty for violators of the ordinance. Those who refuse to wear a face covering, though, can be subject to prosecution under criminal trespassing, disturbing the peace or a similar offense.

The ordinance will expire when the mayor’s civil emergency order expires Nov. 30 or when the ordinance is repealed, modified or extended by the City Council, whichever comes first.

The ordinance includes the following exceptions:

• People who fall into the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for those who should not wear Face Coverings due to a medical or mental health condition or developmental disability;

• Children younger than 18

• Restaurant patrons while they are eating or drinking

• People exercising in communal outdoor spaces or walking or exercising with others from the same household in communal outdoor spaces, as long as physical distancing is maintained. People congregating in communal outdoor spaces with other people not from their same household are required to wear face coverings when physical distancing is not maintained

• Settings where it is not practical or feasible to wear a face covering, such as while obtaining dental services or medical treatments or while swimming

• Occupants in a personal vehicle, personal office or similarly private space while people not from the person’s household are not present

• Private homes

• Offices and workplaces that are not public service areas where physical distancing between employees and other occupants can be consistently maintained during hours of operation.

The council’s decision comes on the same day Gov. Kevin Stitt and Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith announced that they have tested positive for the virus.

Prior to Wednesday’s meetings, councilors received letters supporting a mask ordinance from the superintendents of Tulsa, Jenks and Union public schools.

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist said Wednesday morning that there is no question that if more people would wear masks the virus could be better contained.

“We need to get this trajectory turned around,” she said. “We want to be back in school; we need to be back in school. Our children need to be back in school. Their families need them to be back in school, and our teachers want to see them back in school.”

City councilors spent 2½ hours in a committee meeting Wednesday afternoon discussing the proposed face covering ordinance with public health officials and Bynum.

All three health officials who attended Wednesday’s video conference urged councilors to approve the ordinance.

Dr. George Monks, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said an important responsibility of elected officials is to keep the public safe.

“Wearing a face mask may not be as dramatic and immediate as saving a toddler’s life because they walked out into the street where there is oncoming traffic, (but) you have the potential of saving lives when you wear a face mask,” Monk said. “It’s that important.”

Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID officer at the University of Oklahoma, stressed that wearing a simple cloth mask can help prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

Given that there is no vaccine to prevent the virus, Bratzler said, “the best intervention that we have to reduce the spread of this disease is to wear a mask.”

“It’s a respiratory virus, which means the most common mode of transmission is that the droplets coming out of my mouth when I speak are in the air and somebody else can potentially inhale them, particularly if you are not physically distancing from those people,” Bratzler said.

Bynum told councilors that although his proposal would be unprecedented in Tulsa, it was in line with what other municipalities across the country have implemented or are considering.

“This is not unprecedented in cities across America,” he said. “Out of the 50 largest cities by population, 46 of them already have orders like this in place, either put in place by their local governments or by their state government.”

Bynum said the No. 1 misconception that he’s heard about the ordinance is that it is about protecting the wearer.

“If that were the case, then I could totally understand the whole, ‘It’s my choice to take a risk with my health’ argument,” Bynum said. “I would support that. This is about protecting other people from the person wearing the mask. And the only way it works effectively is if you have the community engaging in that.”

Important definitions

Face covering: A covering that fully covers a person's nose and mouth. The term includes but is not limited to cloth face masks, towels, scarves and bandanas as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Oklahoma State Department of Health, an N95, KN95, or other mask that would be appropriate for a health care setting, or a surgical mask. 

Public service area: Areas of a place of public accommodation or an educational institution where employees interact with the public in the normal course of business.

Public setting: Any public place where people congregate that is not a place of public accommodation, including offices, workplaces, houses of worship and ancillary facilities, child care facilities, hospitals and health facilities, gymnasiums and physical fitness facilities, adult and youth sports facilities, communal outdoor spaces such as sidewalks, trails and parks, and food trucks and other outdoor retail entities.

Place of public accommodation: All places offering items, goods or services for purchase or rent, including retail businesses, personal services and spas, entertainment venues, food service facilities, restaurants and bars, hotels, motels and travel related services, professional offices and services, banks and financial services, repair facilities, motor vehicle dealerships.

Public service area: Areas in a place of public accommodation or an educational institution where employees interact with the public in the normal course of business.


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

Local
Hundreds seeking unemployment claims help filter through Expo Square

Hundreds of people turned out early Wednesday morning at the Tulsa fairgrounds in hopes of securing a spot in front of an unemployment claims agent.

The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission brought the event to the River Spirit Expo to help those who have been unable to navigate the antiquated jobless claims system, which is overwhelmed by COVID-19-related layoffs and furloughs.

“I think it’s going pretty well,” Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of the OESC, said about 7 a.m. as an intercom voice boomed out the names and numbers of those due up next to be helped.

“It’s always a gamble when we put these on because we want to make sure people are safe when they get here,” Zumwalt said. “What’s the most efficient and time-conscious way to get people in the door and make sure they are not waiting outside or arriving and staying before the call time?”

The OESC held a handful of mass, in-person claims processing events in Oklahoma City prior to coming to Tulsa.

Nearly 2,000 people are estimated to have been waiting in line when the OESC began handing out tickets before 6 a.m. The first 400 tickets were for appointments Wednesday with OESC staff and its debit card vendor. Another 400 tickets to be first in line Thursday were also quickly snapped up, prompting the OESC to announce that it would hold another two-day event next Wednesday and Thursday at the fairgrounds.

Michelle Boyce of Berryhill said the line was already formed when she arrived at the River Spirit Expo at 4 a.m. to get a ticket for an appointment.

Workers gave her No. 135 out of the 400 that were given out Wednesday for the event, which was scheduled to run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Boyce said she came to the event because she received a debit card from the third-party vendor, but it wouldn’t work.

“Now I’ve called them at least 200 times and got hung up on probably 150 times, been on hold for at least two hours every time,” Boyce said.

“I have five teenagers, and I’m the sole provider for my family,” Boyce said. “I have all this money on this card that is unusable. We’ve already got our car repo’ed; we’re getting ready to be evicted. I mean, this is serious.”

Inside the lower level of the River Spirit Expo, dozens of people sat on metal folding chairs, spaced for social distancing, facing toward partitions. Behind the partitions claims workers assisted those in need.

Everyone inside was wearing a mask, and all had their temperatures taken prior to entering the building.

About 15 minutes after OESC staff started working on the claims, John Willis of Tulsa was heading back to his car in the parking lot.

“They fixed me up,” Willis said. “I’ve been waiting for it for close to two months,” referring to his unemployment insurance.

“I’ve been out of work for about three months,” Willis said. “I never received a (debit) card.”

He said he was told to expect a new debit card by Friday.

Others though were not so fortunate.

E.B. Downing of Skiatook said he arrived at the fairgrounds about 6:15 a.m., but it was too late; all of the appointment tickets for both days had been given out.

Downing said that when he tried to apply for unemployment insurance benefits he was eventually told someone had already tried to file in his name.

“So it’s hanging up me receiving my benefits,” said Downing, who lost his job in March.

Downing estimates that he has lost $10,000 in jobless benefits.

Fortunately for Downing, he said he had some savings and a wife who has continued to work.

He also said he began work at another job this week.

“But now, I’ve depleted all my resources,” Downing said. “Now I’m starting back over again and having to (re)build what I built.”


Related video: Thousands of unemployment fraud victims in limbo, but state hosting events in Tulsa, OKC metros to clear log jam


Gallery: Oklahoma Employment Security Commission hosts Tulsa event to help with jobless claims

Gallery: Oklahoma Employment Security Commission hosts Tulsa event to help with jobless claims

Business
topical
American Airlines says nationwide furloughs could reach 25,000 by Oct. 1; Tulsa impact unknown

Amid June revenues that have dipped more than 80% from a year ago, American Airlines on Wednesday notified about 25,000 front-line employees about potential furloughs.

The possible impact on Tulsa, where American employs thousands of people, was not immediately known.

The news from the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier came in a letter to employees from company CEO Doug Parker and President Robert Isom.

It was immediately unclear how the announcement will affect Tech-Ops Tulsa, the airline’s largest maintenance facility, which employs about 5,400.

Reached by email Wednesday, spokespersons for American declined to elaborate.

“We hate taking this step, as we know the impact it has on our hardworking team members,” Parker and Isom wrote in the memo. “From the time the CARES Act was signed in March, we had a stated goal of avoiding furloughs because we believed demand for air travel would steadily rebound by Oct. 1 as the impact of COVID-19 dissipated.

“That unfortunately has not been the case. Our passenger revenues in June, while we believe are better than others in the industry, were more than 80% lower than June 2019.

“And with infection rates increasing and several states reestablishing quarantine restrictions, demand for air travel is slowing again. As a result, we currently anticipate having over 20,000 more team members on payroll than we will need to operate our smaller schedule this fall.

“For our Airports and Tech Ops teams, we are also accounting for displacements that could occur as team members shift to other locations, so those potentially impacted individuals are also included in the WARN process.”

The most WARN notices were distributed to flight attendants (9,950), representing 37% of the carrier’s workforce in that category. Next were fleet service (4,500 workers) and maintenance and related (3,200). The potential 25,000 furloughs represent about 20% of the company’s workforce.

Airlines are prohibited from cutting jobs or pay rates of workers through Sept. 30 under the terms of $25 billion in federal payroll support, CNBC reported Wednesday.

American said it hopes to reduce the actual number of furloughs significantly through enhanced leave and early-out programs for represented workgroups. Those programs are open to frontline represented workers, excluding pilots, who because of their mandatory retirement age and required training cycles have separate leave and early-out programs.

The voluntary programs include extended leaves of 15, 18 or 24 months that provide continued medical coverage at active rates, continued non-revenue travel privileges and partial pay for certain eligible team members. Also being offered is an early-out program for workers with at least 10 years of occupational seniority.

This program includes up to $150,000 in a retiree health reimbursement arrangement for 65-point plan retirement-eligible team members.

The airline also has an early-out program for team members who have fewer than 10 years of occupational seniority that will provide continuation of active medical coverage and non-revenue travel privileges for a period of time.

“We know American will be smaller going forward and we must right-size all aspects of our airline to adjust to that new reality,” the memo read. “Although this is a day none of us wanted to see, we have created new, generous programs intended to help offset as many frontline furloughs as possible.”

American said each of its unions has expressed support for legislation that would extend the federal Payroll Support Program funding for six months in light of lingering COVID-19 pandemic.

“As currently proposed, the effect of this legislation would be to delay any involuntary furloughs until March 31, 2021, at which point there would most certainly be more demand for air travel, and along with that demand, much less need for involuntary furloughs throughout the industry,” the executives wrote in the memo.


Featured video: Let's Talk: A virtual town hall about Oklahoma's economy


Gallery: A look inside the largest aircraft maintenance facility in the world

Gallery: A look inside the largest aircraft maintenance facility in the world

Local
topical
Kevin Stitt 'pretty shocked' to be first governor to test positive for COVID-19

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt said Wednesday that he has tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the nation’s first governor to contract the virus but remaining steadfast against a mask mandate.

The news comes the same day the state recorded 1,075 new cases, a record for a single day. Wednesday marked the first day that Oklahoma’s daily new case count exceeded 1,000. There have been 22,813 confirmed cases of the disease since early March.

“I feel fine,” Stitt said, adding he was just a little achy. “I was pretty shocked that I was the first governor to get it.”

He said he is basically asymptomatic.

Stitt said he got his positive test result around 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

Stitt earlier that day had chaired a meeting of the Commissioners of the Land Office.

Three of the five members and Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, met in executive session to discuss a new leader for the agency.

The governor was asked Wednesday about the meeting, where Stitt did not wear a mask.

McBride on Wednesday said he has canceled his upcoming events and plans to get tested.

The other two members were Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell and Agriculture Secretary Blayne Arthur.

In a Facebook post, Pinnell said he would be retested for COVID-19 and would continue quarantining and working from home until he has results. He reported having no symptoms currently.

“No one in Oklahoma can say they don’t know anyone who has had it,” Pinnell said in his post. “We all know someone now and it should absolutely be taken seriously.“

Arthur was notified Tuesday during the contact tracing process and is quarantining and working remotely, according to the Governor’s Office.

Stitt’s office was asked for his schedule for the last two weeks. Baylee Lakey, a spokeswoman, said the request would have to be processed under the Oklahoma Open Records Act. Stitt’s office has been slow to respond to requests under the act.

Stitt’s office was asked if other members of his staff or Cabinet have tested positive.

“As a general rule, we do not comment on the personal health information of anyone without their permission,” said Charlie Hannema, a Stitt spokesman. “I can tell you that we are not aware of anyone who has been in close contact with the governor in recent days testing positive, but that is about as specific as I’m able to go to protect their privacy now or in the future.”

Stitt said he was “not thinking about a mask mandate at all.”

“I am just hesitant to mandate something that is problematic to enforce,” the governor said.

He said his wife and six children have tested negative for the virus.

Stitt said he will be quarantining at home and conducting more meetings by videoconference.

He said he does not second-guess his personal choices not to wear a mask despite testing positive.

Stitt on June 20 attended a campaign rally in Tulsa at the BOK Center for President Donald Trump.

The event attracted at least 6,200 people to the facility that has 19,000 seats.

The majority of people were not wearing masks. The state’s Republican Congressional delegation, some of whom wore masks, attended.

Meanwhile, a Tulsa Vietnamese restaurant where Stitt reportedly dined last week is closing until further notice after learning that Stitt tested positive.

Kai, 201 W. Fifth St., made the announcement on social media Wednesday morning.

“He (Stitt) visited our establishment last week and we want to be proactive and shut down to get the staff tested and get our restaurant professionally disinfected,” the restaurant posted on Facebook.

Stitt also attended the funeral service last week for Tulsa Police Sgt. Craig Johnson, who died after being shot during a traffic stop on June 30.

Stitt was asked Wednesday whether his exposure likely came from the Trump rally, where he did not wear a mask. Stitt and Health Commissioner Lance Frye said the event was too long ago, adding that the exposure could have been at any point in the past two weeks.

Stitt said it is way too “premature” to talk about closing down again, adding that Oklahoma has plenty of hospital beds and equipment available.

Some states seeing significant spikes after reopening are returning to restrictions on certain businesses and activities.

Stitt said he would not attempt to guess as to where he contracted the virus.

He said adjusting to the presence of the virus is the new normal, adding that it could be around for the next 24 months or until a cure or vaccine is available.

Oklahomans will need to adjust their behavior until that time, Stitt said.

He said Americans and Oklahomans do not want to “bunker in place” for the next couple of months.

Stitt in March faced backlash on social media after he posted a picture of himself and what is believed to be two of his six children at an Oklahoma City food hall.

The tweet, later deleted, said “Eating with my kids and all my fellow Oklahomans @CollectiveOKC. It’s packed tonight!” with the hashtag “supportlocal.”

The tweet came at a time when medical experts were recommending social distancing.


Crime-and-courts
Missing Welch girls: Suspect makes plea deal that hinges on whether he leads authorities to girls' bodies

VINITA — The only still-living suspect in one of the state’s most notorious murder-kidnapping-arson cases has entered a guilty plea in an agreement that makes his sentence dependent upon whether he can lead authorities to the bodies of two Craig County teens who disappeared more than 20 years ago.

Ronnie Busick, 68, has been held in the Craig County jail in Vinita for over two years on charges of murder, arson and kidnapping in the deaths of Danny and Kathy Freeman; their 16-year-old daughter, Ashley Freeman; and her best friend, Lauria Bible.

Holding onto a cane, Busick appeared in Craig County District Court on Wednesday and pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of accessory to murder; the charges of murder, arson and kidnapping were dropped in accordance with the agreement.

Busick was sentenced to a split 15 years, to serve 10 years in Oklahoma Department of Corrections custody and five years under supervised release. An alternative sentence would have Busick serving five years in prison and five years of supervised release if information he provides leads to the recovery of Ashley’s and Lauria’s remains. Time served would apply to that sentence.

His formal sentencing is set for Aug. 31.

Investigators believe that Busick and two other men, Warren Phillip Welch II and David Pennington, both now deceased, are the people who shot Danny and Kathy Freeman and kidnapped the girls on Dec. 30, 1999, and set the Freemans’ mobile home in Welch on fire.

When asked by Judge Shawn Taylor, Busick said he “withheld information about Welch and Pennington.”

Investigators think the men kidnapped the girls and took them to a mobile home in Picher, where they were bound, tortured, raped and killed.

During the plea hearing, Busick remained seated in a chair that was located in a hallway adjacent to a courtroom door. He did not stand during his hearing.

Taylor repeatedly reminded Busick that his sentence could be “a very short sentence” if he provides the location of the girls’ remains.

Lorene Bible, Lauria Bible’s mother, said after the hearing that she was in agreement with the plea agreement, although at the time of Busick’s arrest she had wanted prosecutors to pursue the death penalty.

District Attorney Matt Ballard and prosecutor Isaac Shields said after the hearing that Busick already has provided some information and that there may be a provision for him to lead investigators to a location.

The Bible family has talked about Busick’s plea for months and what is the best option, said Lisa Bible Brodrick, Lauria’s cousin.

“Though many will agree this isn’t enough time, in the big picture, time is of the essence, and we need to get all the information we can to find the girls,” Brodrick said.

“Rather than be upset over the time he (Busick) is facing, we want to use that energy to pray for his eyes to be open and his mind will be clear,” she said.

Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Agent Tammy Ferrari and District 12 District Attorney’s Investigator Gary Stansill have been analyzing and researching possible search locations for the remains of Lauria and Ashley, missing for over two decades.

Investigators have spent months searching mine shafts, ponds and other spots of interest in the former Tar Creek mining area.

“These locations came from recent information received from an undisclosed source,” Stansill said.

The family continues to plead for people who have information but still haven’t shared it to come forward.

“We need to bring the girls home,” Brodrick said.

Busick is being held in the Craig County jail in lieu of $1 million bail.


In 2018, the Tulsa World took a deep look into the disappearance of Ashley Freeman and her best friend Lauria Bible. Read the complete series by Staff Writers Andrea Eger and Tim Stanley and Staff Photographer Mike Simons: Two girls went missing from Welch almost two decades ago. Why did it take so long to name their killers with so many clues?


Gallery: A timeline of the 1999 case of missing Welch girls Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible

A timeline of the 1999 case of missing Welch girls Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible

September 2018 video: Inside the investigation