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Why is Tulsa in the White House's COVID-19 red zone and Oklahoma City isn't? Masks in suburbs, Tulsa mayor says

Why is Tulsa in the White House's COVID-19 red zone and Oklahoma City isn't? Masks in suburbs, Tulsa mayor says

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The White House coronavirus reports have pegged Tulsa in the red zone for high rates of spread the past two months, while Oklahoma City has been in the moderate yellow during the same period.

Mayor G.T. Bynum on Thursday said the reason is simple. Oklahoma City and surrounding communities have implemented mask ordinances, but Tulsa is the only city in Tulsa County to take such action.

"We've been able to get by with that so far because the citizens of Tulsa have sucked it up and done the right thing," Bynum said during a COVID-19 update news conference. "But we're moving into flu season. We're moving into cold, winter months when more people will not have the option of al fresco dining and spending as much time outside.

"More people will be inside, and with that comes much greater risk."

Bynum referenced a scholarly journal article sent to him by Bruce Dart, Tulsa Health Department's executive director, to illustrate the city's challenge.

The mayor said the article pointed out that spread of the virus isn't necessarily related to population density because large metros can have excellent health systems and virus precautions in place.

The greater challenge is connectivity, Bynum continued, citing the article. He said a city connected to areas that don't regulate COVID-19's spread can cause more problems than simply being a city of high population density.

"In that sense, we're a low population density city with high connectivity to cities all around us that are not regulating this through a mask ordinance," Bynum said. "And so Tulsa really is in the worst-case scenario under that line of scholarship."

The article was published online June 18 in the Journal of the American Planning Association and is titled, "Does Density Aggravate the COVID-19 Pandemic?"

Dart noted that he can only make recommendations — he can't force a suburb to implement a face covering requirement.

He wants people to stop fighting about masks and "embrace the right thing" to help prevent deaths because "I don't want to see any more people dying" from COVID-19.

The state's coronavirus death toll was 930 as of Thursday, with 151 deaths of Tulsa County residents. There have been 197,554 deaths in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University data.

"We know that one of our greatest tools to prevent spread is this little piece of cloth," Dart said. "And it's not too hard to put it on. I see everyone wearing a different decorative, cool-looking mask. It's absolutely frustrating because until we have a vaccine, this is one of the best tools we've got."

Earlier Thursday, Gov. Kevin Stitt maintained his stance not to enact a state masking order.

Stitt said he believes a mask requirement isn't enforceable and that those decisions should be made locally. He encouraged Oklahomans to wear a mask, watch their distance and wash their hands — the "three W's."

"We make decisions based on the facts and the data here in Oklahoma and not what we see on television, not what the feds tell us we have to do," the governor said.

Bynum expressed frustration that the state or other municipalities won't step up and require face coverings. He reiterated that Tulsa hospitals don't serve only Tulsans — they take in patients from around northeastern Oklahoma and would have struggled had rates continued upward prior to the city's mask ordinance.

He said he has encouraged colleagues in other communities to bring in local experts like the Tulsa City Council did to learn more about the science that makes masks so effective before voting in favor of a mandate.

"We were keeping track of that vote and before those doctors appeared before the council, I would be willing to wager that it was going to fail, 3-6," Bynum said. "After it was presented and the science was presented by local experts, it passed overwhelmingly."

The White House Coronavirus Task Force first recommended that Stitt implement a mask mandate in its Aug. 2 report. Its first report, on June 29, recommended ensuring the public use of masks in all COVID-19 hot spots.

The mayor referred to Dr. Deborah Birx's visit Aug. 16 to Tulsa in which the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s response coordinator wasn't made available to reporters as she had been in other states.

Bynum said Birx told everyone gathered privately — including state officials and the governor — that she wasn't aware of one city or state not to experience a significant drop in infections after two weeks of a mask mandate.

"We cannot control what our neighbors do," Bynum said. "There are two entities that can do that. Either the governor can do that or the governing bodies of those communities can do that.

"But their decisions will impact our hospitalization rates as we move forward into a time when, again, we have flu season coming in and we have colder months where you're going to have more people inside. And we know from all the data that this virus spreads at a greater rate indoors than outdoors."

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Corey Jones


Twitter: @JonesingToWrite


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Staff Writer

I am a general assignment reporter who predominately writes about public health, public safety and justice reform. I'm in journalism to help make this community, state, country and, ultimately, world a better place.

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