JENKS — In an impassioned plea for action, Jenks Mayor Robert Lee told city councilors on Tuesday that nine city residents have died this year after contracting COVID-19 and that a dozen others are hospitalized.
“Sorry if I offend anyone, but this is an urgent situation with lives on the line,” Lee said during a special council meeting at which a split City Council approved a mask mandate by a 4-3 vote. The meeting was broadcast live on YouTube.
“We tried letting a handful of doctors lacking credibility cherry-pick studies and control public policy, and it hasn’t worked. My colleagues who disagree with me and say doing nothing is an effective strategy, they had their chance, and it didn’t work.
“So this ends tonight,” Lee said before the vote. “We’re not going to let conspiracy theories guide our public policy. It’s time we finally listen to the vast majority of the medical community and health experts on every level who are begging us to do this.”
The bulk of the meeting was taken up by debate and numerous public comments on the proposed mask ordinance.
City Attorney Teresa Nowlin said the ordinance, which she described as similar to those in Tulsa, Norman and Stillwater, would expire Jan. 31 and would apply to residents age 10 and older. Violations could lead to a municipal financial penalty of up to $200, although the council noted that convictions — misdemeanors — would not come from a court of record.
“The science is very clear that masks work. They protect others,” Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart told the council. “We don’t want to go back to where we were in March.”
Lee said Jenks, a city of about 25,000 people, had 112 active COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday.
Vice Mayor Donna Ogez disagreed with Lee on the need for a mask ordinance based on her belief — rooted in research disputed by Tulsa-area health care leaders — that masks are not effective in controlling the spread of COVID-19.
Ogez said she has seen numerous people who are not wearing masks properly, defeating the purpose. She reiterated before the vote her view that masks “don’t work,” while councilwoman Dawn Dyke said that “you wear masks to protect others.”
“Even the masks that are required for the hospitals, from my research, they don’t stop COVID,” Ogez said to the council. “It’s such a minuscule disease that goes through the mask itself. So I’m having a hard time understanding how the mask is going to prevent anything when it can still go through any mask that’s there.”
Politifact, a nonpartisan fact-checking organization, assigned a “pants on fire,” or clearly false, label last month to a viral claim that masks make the wearer more likely to get COVID-19.
“Health researchers have consistently found strong correlations between wearing a face mask and reducing the spread of disease like COVID-19,” Politifact wrote.
Dart told Ogez Tuesday that masks “break that chain of transmission, and it does prevent people from transmitting it to others.” When Ogez later asked skeptically what percentage of those hospitalized are there because of COVID-19, Dart replied, “We’re having the wrong conversation here, to be perfectly honest.”
“If we could prevent this from being transmitted, we wouldn’t have to worry about hospital capacity,” Dart said. He implored the council to implement a mandate based on the sustained increase in cases, which are up to about 2,000 new cases per day statewide, according to the state’s seven-day rolling average.
“COVID now is sweeping through our state much like an uncontrolled wildfire, and it’s going to take all of us to put it out,” Oklahoma State Medical Association President George Monks, a Jenks resident and physician, said. “We are in the worst hospital crisis Oklahoma has ever faced, and we’re struggling. We have to protect our Jenks teachers, our students, our firemen, our policemen, our health care workers.”
Ogez was among those who voted against the mask ordinance, and Lee cast the tie-breaking vote to enact it.
The Oklahoma Hospital Association in October helped work on a four-tier plan to handle COVID-19 patients based on what percentage they comprise of all hospitalizations.
Oklahoma City is the first metropolitan area in the state to enter Tier 3, meaning at least 20% of patients in hospitals there have the virus, while Tulsa was expected to reach the mark soon.
“No one needs to die from this, and it’s a simple process to stop that from happening,” Dart said of mask usage. “This enhances your freedom to go out and live the way you want to without putting others at risk.”
Ogez, though, described her experience of wearing a mask for the duration of air travel as “torture, and I mean torture.”
“I don’t know how nurses and doctors do it, to be honest with you,” she said. “But some people cannot do it, and it’s not just a health thing. It’s like you can’t get enough air.”
Jim Meehan, a doctor in Tulsa who publicly opposes promoting mask use, spoke at length about how “it’s not a few conspiracy theorists” who share his views.
“It’s just you don’t hear our voice because we get censored. We get 10 minutes (for public comment), and you guys get an hour and a half,” Meehan said. “You’re going to get sued,” he told the council. “And then somebody’s going to be harmed by wearing a mask, and you’re going to be sued for that.”
In response, Dr. David Kendrick, CEO of MyHealth Access Network, asked Meehan, “What is your recommendation for society to do here? Sit back and let society be felled by this?”
Meehan replied that he would recommend people wash their hands and pointed to Sweden as proof that “the lockdowns have been debunked.”
Reuters reported that Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven held a press conference last week describing the current COVID-19 situation there as “very serious” and announcing new limits on how many people can dine together at restaurants.