The Norman City Council at its Tuesday meeting narrowly approved a COVID-19 vaccine incentives program, but not without a fight as several councilors opposed it and attempted to cut the funding by more than half.
The program will use $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (APRA) money for vaccination pods, mobile vaccination units, gift cards and reimbursements to city employees to take the jab.
Approximately $100,000 will pay for marketing and vaccine delivery, up to $250,000 for city employees with $250 per employee and up to $150,000 to pay for $25 gift cards to locally-owned businesses. Pods and incentives will be offered tentatively from October to November, or over 60 days, Parks and Recreation Director Jason Olsen said. Any funds not spent by the end of the period will be credited back to the ARPA fund account, he added.
The council voted 5-4 in favor of the program. Ward 5 Rarchar Tortorello, Ward 6 Elizabeth Foreman, Ward 3 Kelly Lynn and Ward 1 Brandi Studley voted against the program.
The amendment to cut the program to $100,000 failed by a vote of 3-6, with Ward 8 Matt Peacock, Ward 7 Stephen Holman, Ward 4 Lee Hall, Ward 2 Lauren Schueler, Tortorello and Mayor Breea Clark voting against.
City staff abandoned a $25,000 cash lottery or raffle due to legal concerns, City Attorney Kathryn Walker said. While the Norman Chamber of Commerce entered into discussions about hosting the lottery to sidestep those concerns, ultimately the organization was ultimately unable to do so because staff are moving into a new building at the time of this request, Walker said.
Lynn and Tortorello said the city could put the money for the program to better use and disagreed that tax dollars should be used.
“It can be used for many different reasons,” Lynn said. “It’s an economic stimulus as well as being part of the COVID mitigation.”
“If you’re naturally immune or you have natural immunity, you don’t have to take (the vaccine),” Tortorello said.
Some citizens expressed their support for the program, while others did not.
“What I’m struggling with here, is it says provide multiple convenience opportunities to get vaccines,” Dan Munson quoted from the resolution. “You can do that for the last six months, at Walgreens, at CVS, Sam’s Club, Classen Urgent Care ... for the last six months if you wanted the vaccine, you could have gone to any one of those places.”
Cynthia Rogers said the idea that it was easy for everyone to get vaccinated was a very “ableist” approach.
“It’s simply not true. Some people cannot get out of their house,” she said. “It’s difficult. Sometimes you think, ‘Oh, it’s a gift card,’ but sometimes just a little motivation can be the thing that gets somebody off the couch. I worry about people who actually don’t have good access (to vaccines). Not everybody is a couple blocks away from a location. I think it’s almost a win-win to offer small gift cards.”
Foreman pushed back on the proposal, saying that the city is facing “big asks” when it comes to ARPA dollars.
“I know I have been getting some big asks and we’re about to get more big asks, so I would hate to fund the incentives part. I would love to put some money into vaccine pods and mobile units,” she said.
Foreman proposed the council cut the program incentives and spend $100,000 on the vaccine drive.
Studley agreed, stating she had researched other cities that offered similar incentives but found marginal to no improvement in the vaccination rate. She asked the council and staff to consider homeless resources instead as a possible allocation of $400,000.
Foreman also noted that a $25 incentive would not persuade anyone opposed to the vaccine.
“There are people in the audience right now who don’t have a mask on, and I couldn’t give them $25 to put a mask on, let alone get vaccinated,” she said.
Hall, Holman and Clark disliked cutting incentives for city employees in particular. While ARPA dollars would be spent on employees who choose to be vaccinated during the program, Walker said other funds would be used to reward those employees who had been previously inoculated.
The dollars can only be spent on incentives and not on those who had previously done so, Walker said. All three echoed that they wanted to reward employees who worked hard to keep the city and its services online during the pandemic.
Before the vote for the fully-funded program, Clark reminded councilors that the money, if unspent by the end of the program, would be returned to the ARPA account, and scolded councilors for “giving up.”
“Are you all ready to give up? Is that where we’re at? Because it’s continuing to mutate," she said. "Are we going to look back and think, ‘Well, we didn’t think it was going to work. We didn’t even try.’ Wow. I hope you’ve still got some fight left in you, friend, because it’s a long battle ahead of us, unfortunately.”