COVID-19 infected more than 5,600 Oklahomans in the last week, a number the state did not reach for several weeks early in the pandemic.
Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID officer at the University of Oklahoma, said during a virtual news conference that the state is “seeing real rapid growth” in COVID-19 cases.
“(W)e have seen 5,000 newly confirmed cases in one week,” Bratzler said. “Compare that to when we first started this pandemic, it took us more than two months to get to 5,000 confirmed cases.”
To be precise: There were 5,644 new, confirmed cases between July 10 and Friday, according to Oklahoma State Department of Health data updated Friday.
For comparison, health officials confirmed the first case on March 6 and the 5,000th case about May 15, according to OSDH data collected by the Tulsa World.
Since the start in early March, there have been 24,140 cumulative cases and 445 deaths. On Friday, state health officials reported seven Oklahomans died recently from COVID-19 and 699 more are infected by the disease.
OSDH officials reported the new deaths Friday. Two of those were Tulsa County residents: a man and a woman who were older than 65.
Five residents — one each from Rogers, Pottawatomie, Hughes, Seminole and Texas counties — also died. The Hughes and Texas counties residents were in the 36-49 age group. All others were older than 65.
Across the state, 604 COVID-19 patients are reported as hospitalized.
There were 207 new confirmed cases reported in Tulsa County. The county has had a cumulative 5,997 cases and 83 deaths.
The state’s rolling seven-day average for new cases has climbed again, to a new high of 721. The seven-day rolling average in Tulsa County has also climbed to a new high of 167. The previous county high was set on July 12 at 166.
The new rolling average high for Tulsa County comes on the heels of a mask ordinance signed by Mayor G.T. Bynum on Thursday.
“The mask mandate is not the last option,” Bynum said during a COVID-19 briefing on July 8. “The last option is to start rolling back and ultimately going back to shelter-in-place, like we were a few months ago. The mask is the interim measure.”
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 masks when physical distancing cannot be maintained.
COVID-19 is most commonly spread through respiratory droplets, so public health officials encourage people to wear a mask or cloth face covering and to stay at least 6 feet from people who don’t live with them.
Masks are vital when social distancing is difficult. A snug fit that covers the mouth and nose is the most effective, according to public health officials. A cloth face mask curtails the amount of respiratory droplets that escape from the wearer, preventing the unknowing spread of the virus.
Health experts have previously said wearing a mask can also help to serve as a reminder to be aware of social distancing guidelines.
In addition, people should avoid being in group or mass gatherings.
Frequent and thorough handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use of hand sanitizer also can help prevent the spread of the disease, health experts say.
Those seeking to be tested for COVID-19 may find resources on the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s website, where testing sites are listed by county.
Video: Tulsa Mayor Bynum on why we wear masks
Interactive graphic: See number of active COVID-19 cases by county
COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues
Researchers began actively reevaluating other sites at Oaklawn Cemetery on Friday as it became increasingly apparent that unmarked burials from Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre would not be found in the area under excavation for the past five days.
As workers completed digging a 70-foot test-site trench near a stand of crepe myrtles on the cemetery’s west side, scientists redeployed subsurface scanners and other equipment elsewhere on the grounds. At least two other areas of interest are known, in additional to several others around the city.
The expectation is to drill core samples in some of those areas on Monday, and from those determine how to proceed.
Mayor G.T. Bynum reiterated his intention to continue the search for lost remains.
“This is the early stage of a long-term commitment by the city of Tulsa,” Bynum said. “While it’s taken 99 years to get to this point, we’re further in this investigation than the city of Tulsa has ever been.
“It’s important to us as a city to let the descendants of these victims know that our commitment to this is long term. Even if (graves had been found) on Day 1 this week, it would still be a long-term investigation ... to try to match DNA with descendants,” he said.
State Archaeologist Kary Stackelbeck said the geophysical information that helped lead researchers to the spot examined this week was proved accurate within the limits of the technology.
That data, collected last year through a series of subsurface scanning techniques, indicated a relatively large area of disturbed soil in a configuration that suggested a large burial site.
Added to that was the lack of any recorded burials in that area despite the cemetery being considered full for almost 100 years, and some oral tradition.
The researchers did find disturbed soil, but instead of covering human remains it appears to have been used to improve drainage in an area prone to flooding. On Friday morning, the team found the remains of an old road that had passed through the cemetery at one time.
Even as the likelihood of finding a burial place diminished, the decision was made to continue the trench as far south as possible to establish to the extent possible that no remains are in the target area.
While disappointing to some, the week’s work demonstrated how difficult the task at hand is and explained why Bynum continues to counsel patience.
“This is a multiyear project for us at the city of Tulsa,” he said.
Thirty-seven people, all men, are known to have been killed in the racial violence of May 31-June 1, 1921, but it is widely believed that the toll was probably higher, and perhaps much higher. Virtually from the moment the shooting stopped, whites and blacks alike repeated stories of bodies being disposed of in all manner of ways and places.
At Oaklawn, researchers are interested in an area near the south fence where a white man named Clyde Eddy said in the 1990s that he had seen, as a young boy, excavation equipment and bodies in packing crates.
They are also interested in two markers bearing the names of massacre victims Reuben Everett and Eddie Lockard. Researchers think others killed in the fighting might be nearby, but it is not even clear whether Everett and Lockard are buried beneath the stones.
Some have questioned spending tax dollars on such a speculative mission, but Bynum said it’s a matter of principle.
“If your family member was murdered, you would want the city to do everything it could to determine what happened to them,” he said. “That’s a basic, fundamental covenant we have with the city government. One of the great tragedies of this situation is that it took the city so long to live up to that. All of this work we’re doing right now? The city of Tulsa should have been doing in 1921.
“It’s important ... not to look at this as some sort of historical, academic exercise. This is very much an investigation to find Tulsans who were murdered,” he said.
Gallery: Test excavations in Tulsa Race Massacre mass graves search
Tulsa’s suburbs are not following the city’s lead on mandating masks despite the surge of COVID-19 infections being reported by county and state officials.
In Broken Arrow, the City Council might discuss the topic at their next meeting on Tuesday, but Mayor Craig Thurmond said the overwhelming majority of community input has been in opposition to any kind of ordinance mandating face coverings.
“We feel our Police Department doesn’t have the manpower or ability to enforce an ordinance. Our police officers are very busy fighting crime, which is why we’re one of the safest communities in America,” said Thurmond. “Every business has a right to mandate masks for someone to come in. But we are not going to arrest people for not wearing masks.”
Instead, Thurmond said the city is simply encouraging residents to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing, hand hygiene and masks when adequate social distancing isn’t possible.
“My wife’s diabetic — we wear our masks. I think it’s important that we encourage our citizens to follow the CDC guidelines,” he said.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum signed a mask ordinance on Thursday, just ahead of Tulsa County’s seven-day rolling average of cases reaching a new high of 167 on Friday.
The state’s rolling seven-day average for new cases also climbed again to a new high, of 721, on Friday. Across the state, 604 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Jenks Mayor Robert Lee issued a statement Thursday in support of Tulsa’s mask mandate. But while he is open to exploring the possibility of adopting such a policy “as the situation progresses” in the future, his city is not currently making any moves in that direction.
“Jenks had a large spike in cases a few weeks ago, and we managed that spike. We are now back to where we have otherwise been for the duration of this pandemic, with one of the lowest numbers of cases in the state,” Lee said. “I personally wear a mask when I’m in public, and I urge Jenks citizens to do the same. It is my hope that many Jenks businesses choose to require masks for their employees and customers before entering their establishment. This will protect their staff, as well as the community they serve.”
Like Thurmond in Broken Arrow, Lee cited the difficulty for local police to enforce a mask ordinance.
“We have a small community police department that would be seriously burdened by such a law,” he said. “JPD isn’t going to write you a ticket if you don’t wear a mask, but there’s no question that you should wear one. It is a simple way to reduce transmission of the virus — to protect your family and mine. It is a simple way to protect our first responders, hospital staff and teachers. It is a simple way to support our businesses.”
He even addressed the most common issues raised by opponents to mask-wearing, and encouraged them to seek out scientific facts directly from the CDC or Tulsa’s St. Francis Health System.
“Yes, masks can be misused. Yes, there were mixed messages in the early days of the pandemic from health officials, when masks were in short supply for hospital staff. Yes, there are some with certain health conditions who may be better off without masks. However, it is abundantly clear at this point that the vast majority of us should be wearing them,” Lee said. “Masks, while not a silver bullet by any stretch, are the best tool we have right now to slow the spread.”
At a meeting set for Monday, Claremore’s city council will consider codifying a recommendation for residents to wear face masks that cover their nose and mouth in public places to help stop the spread of COVID-19 — but it’s not a citywide mandate.
“COVID-19 is a very serious illness, and we need to try to stop the spread in our community. Experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend facial coverings,” said Claremore Mayor Bill Flanagan in a written press statement.
The Creek County Commission last week mandated masks and temperature checks in the courthouse at the urging of judges. The policy went into effect at noon the very same day, July 13, said Sherry Bennett, First Deputy Court Clerk of Creek County.
Officials in Owasso discussed mask requirements in a work session on the heels of Tulsa’s new city-wide mask ordinance. In the meantime, they will continue to implore residents to adhere to strict sanitation and social distancing protocols but leave the decision to require face coverings to individual operators of local establishments open to the public.
“We discussed it, from scientific studies to what the CDC and the WHO (World Health Organization) said,” Owasso Mayor Bill Bush said. “I think that there’s other ways to encourage the public to be responsible than trying to mandate that they have to wear a mask right now.”
Jennifer Rush, a city spokeswoman, said Bixby’s active cases of COVID have remained steady at 30 to 40 over the past few weeks, so the city council there will “reevaluate policies” based on the latest data when they meet again in about 10 days.
In a written statement, Bixby Mayor Brian Guthrie, said, “We are closely monitoring the situation daily. Citizens are strongly encouraged to wear masks in public and respect the businesses that may have a mask policy. Please practice good hand washing and social distancing whenever possible.”
Owasso Reporter Editor Art Haddaway contributed to this story.
Video: Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum on why we wear masks
Gallery: Route 66 landmark Buck Atom gets a mask
One day after an agreement had been trumpeted between the state and area tribes on dealing with fallout from a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, two key players in the deal, the Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole nations, announced that they did not approve of the measure.
Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill posted a statement on Facebook Friday indicating that the tribe was “not in agreement” with the proposal to Congress on dealing with criminal and civil jurisdictional issues in the state in light of the July 9 Supreme Court decision.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jimcy McGirt’s contention that the federal government, not the state, should have prosecuted him in a child sex abuse case because he is a Muscogee (Creek) Nation member and Wagoner County, where he was prosecuted, was in Indian Country because Congress never disestablished the 11-county Creek Nation reservation.
The apparent about face from the tribes took Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter by surprise.
In a news release late Friday, in response to the development, Hunter revealed that talks between the state and five tribes have been occurring since another criminal appellate case, one filed by Patrick Dwayne Murphy, made it to the Supreme Court citing similar jurisdictional claims as McGirt.
“Since the Murphy case went before the U.S. Supreme Court over two years ago, we have been meeting regularly with the Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations to discuss potential legislation, so Chief Hill’s statements today come as a stunning and regrettable reversal of commitments and assurances to me,” Hunter said.
“This is neither in the best interest of the state of Oklahoma nor its tribal citizens,” Hunter continued. “Legislation is necessary to clarify the criminal and civil uncertainty created by the McGirt decision.”
The agreement-in-principle announced Thursday would have rolled back criminal jurisdiction in most criminal cases to the pre-McGirt status, with the state assuming jurisdiction.
Since the McGirt decision, federal prosecutors have assumed jurisdiction in a handful of cases that involved American Indians and crimes committed within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation.
Earlier Friday, the Seminole Nation released a statement attributed to Chief Greg P. Chilcoat indicating that the Seminole Nation had not formally approved the pact announced Thursday.
“To be clear, the Seminole Nation has not been involved with discussions regarding proposed legislation between the other four tribes and the State of Oklahoma,” Chilcoat said.
“Furthermore, the Seminole Nation has not engaged in any such discussion with the State of Oklahoma, including the Attorney General, to develop a framework for clarifying respective jurisdictions and to ensure collaboration among tribal, state and federal authorities regarding the administration of justice across Seminole Nation lands.”
Rob Rosette, attorney general for the Seminole Nation, said Friday that neither Chilcoat nor he was aware of the agreement-in-principle prior to its announcement.
Positive statements attributed to Chilcoat in the news release about the agreement were in regard to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation seeing its historic sovereign status being affirmed by the Supreme Court, Rosette said.
Hill, meanwhile, in his letter addressed to Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizens, said that while he believes that the tribes, state and federal government should work together on the jurisdictional issue, he said he did not believe the collaboration between the state and tribes requires any additional federal legislation.
“The Nation will continue to pursue all appropriate intergovernmental agreements to ensure public safety within its borders, as intergovernmental agreements are the hallmark of respect among sovereigns,” Hill wrote. “In fact, many agreements already exist and we will continue to build upon them, but the Muscogee (Creek) Nation will oppose any proposed legislation that diminishes the Nation’s sovereignty.”
Hunter, in his statement, appeared to hold hope that the deal could be salvaged.
“I am deeply disappointed in Chief Hill for withdrawing from this process,” Hunter said. “It is my hope that both the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Seminole Nation will recommit to our agreement on legislation that preserves public safety and promotes continued economic growth.”