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Tulsa City Council passes mask resolution, no mandate

Tulsa City Council passes mask resolution, no mandate

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Anti Mask protesters and reparations supporters, led by Vernon AME Dr. Robert Turner, exchange words in front of Tulsa City Hall. Ian Maule/Tulsa World

In a vote that should have surprised no one, the City Council unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution Wednesday night encouraging Tulsans to follow federal recommendations for masking and vaccinations.

But it wasn’t as easy as it sounds.

The meeting started late because some people in the packed City Hall chamber refused to wear a mask — a requirement inside the building — resulting in several people being escorted out of the room and one man being led away in handcuffs.

Once the nearly four dozen impassioned speakers finally got their turn to address councilors, things got loud and a bit unruly. Council Chairwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper eventually had enough, suspending comments after the third opposition speaker.

That only led to more outcries. So councilors voted to take a 15-minute break.

What came out of Wednesday night’s meeting was far different from what had been proposed just nine days earlier, when three councilors proposed imposing the city’s second mask mandate to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and its highly contagious delta variant.

But it soon became apparent that that would be a tough sell. Faced with strong pushback from the public — and Mayor G.T. Bynum’s seeming reluctance to support the ordinance — the sponsors of the legislation offered the option of a resolution late last week. That is what was approved in a 9-0 vote Wednesday.

“I am disappointed that we are going with a resolution instead of a mandate largely because of the outcry from doctors — doctors in the field who are asking us to do more,” said Councilor Kara Joy McKee, one of the mask mandate’s sponsors.

The resolution strongly encourages Tulsa residents and visitors to follow the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that call on everyone to wear a mask in public indoor settings — whether or not they are vaccinated — in areas of substantial or high COVID transmission.

It also strongly encourages people 12 and older to get vaccinated “and to address any questions and concerns about vaccines and boosters to a trusted health professional.”

The proposed mask ordinance would have required individuals 4 and up to wear masks in most indoor public settings, with the city using its trespassing laws to enforce it.

The members of the public who addressed councilors Wednesday night were almost evenly split between those who would have preferred a mandate and those who questioned the efficacy of masks and vehemently opposed the city’s telling them what to do.

Dr. John Sacra wanted more from the council.

“A nonbinding (resolution) gives the impression that it is not that important,” Sacra said. “A binding one says this is what you should do for your fellow citizens.”

Dr. Randall Stickney was one of several speakers who argued that masks don’t work.

“Masks are a useless banner for a political agenda (put forth) out of ignorance and/or fear of litigation or prosecution,” Stickney said.

During a Wednesday morning committee meeting, Councilor Phil Lakin provided his colleagues with an update from a City Council subcommittee meeting with health care officials earlier this week, saying there are reasons to be hopeful that the city’s COVID-19 numbers are improving.

There has been a decrease in reported cases over the last week, a decrease in hospitalizations and a decline in the percentage of individuals hospitalized with the COVID-19 delta variant, according to health care officials, Lakin said.

Given the numbers and the strife the proposed mask mandate has elicited, unified support for a nonbinding resolution would offer the best option for motivating Tulsans to do their part to slow the spread of the virus, Lakin said.

“I don’t know if in my 11 years, or 10 years, on the council if I have ever seen us internally more divided on a topic or the community so divided on a topic,” Lakin said. “It’s not healthy for us at all. And so for me, the resolution allows us to clearly communicate to the community — as Oklahoma City, Stillwater and Norman have done — as to what we are doing.”

Lakin provided the same update to the people who attended Wednesday night’s meeting and vowed that the council’s COVID-19 working group will resume meeting regularly to keep an eye on the numbers.

The council purposely chose to table the mask ordinance rather than kill it. In doing so, the ordinance can be brought back to the council immediately should conditions warrant.

Bynum issued a statement after the council vote saying he intends to sign the resolution.

“I am in complete agreement with my City Council colleagues on this resolution and will sign it when it reaches my desk,” he said. “I hope my fellow Tulsans will take note of this unanimous, bipartisan call for all of us to do our part in slowing the spread of a lethal virus by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in public places.”

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