Mayor: Mandatory masks possible

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Norman Mayor Breea Clark tries to bring order to the room after protesters interupt Norman City Council chambers June 9.

NORMAN — A business shutdown is unlikely despite an uptick in COVID-19 cases, but the City Council will consider a citywide mandatory mask ordinance, Norman Mayor Breea Clark told The Transcript.

A city council study session at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday will focus on the pandemic and the city's possible response to the growing cases in recent weeks, Clark said. The mayor closed businesses and restricted municipal offices on March 18. The city is in its third phase of reopening.

The state Department of Health has reported more than 4,000 new cases in the last two weeks. State health officials have said the spike is not attributable to higher testing rates but community spread. Cleveland County reported its latest death in early June.

"We were very successful in flattening the curve and not overwhelming our hospital system, and I would like to keep doing that," Clark said. "We knew the numbers would increase as we started reopening but since we were able to, if you look at the numbers we were basically at zero cases. We did a great job. So, that also allowed successful contact tracing to the point we could see what's popping up and where."

Dr. Gary Raskob, a University of Oklahoma professor of epidemiology and medicine, Norman Regional Health System CEO Richie Splitt, and officials with the Cleveland County Health Department will present findings on the pandemic.

Clark said returning the city to earlier restrictions is not likely, but she did not rule out the possibility.

"I know there's a lot of concerns about shutting down again," she said. "I don't think at this time that's the appropriate steps so long as our contact tracing holds up and we can see where the hot spots (of new cases) are. Having the data, and knowing where those hot spots are, we can be more strategic in policies that help us reign it back in."

Mandatory masks for use in public places such as businesses and events are being considered, Clark said.

The city has issued a survey for public input on its coronavirus website.

"Everything's on the table for discussion," she said. "Whatever we end up moving forward with, I want to make sure it's right for Norman. It's (masks) not going to work if businesses won't support it. We have (the) survey right now to gauge the community, because if 100% of Norman says they're not going to wear a mask, I don't think it would be helpful to create a policy."

Norman Chamber of Commerce Director Scott Martin said businesses are not the source of the outbreaks, but rather "community spread" as people begin to gather in large groups for summer activities.

"These folks (business owners) have been in the trenches the last three months and to be fair, while businesses were heavily restricted, many operated very safely...to the point that I believe their efforts to protect their employees and customers were paying off," he said. "We were essentially seeing no growth in new cases day over day. So, I credit much of that to our businesses who were doing their best to do the right thing and be part of the solution. I think most agree the uptick in numbers is attributable to community spread."

Clark addressed the chamber Thursday, Martin said, at his request, "to get a feel for their experience in the last three months and serve as a sounding board for the mayor's ideas."

Martin said most businesses are requiring employees to wear masks and continue "lots of sanitation."

He said idea of businesses being responsible to enforce a mandatory-mask policy for customers was concerning. Martin referred to alleged outbreaks of violence and property destruction inside Stillwater businesses. The City of Stillwater dropped its mask policy May 1 after employees at businesses were threatened by customers who refused to wear face coverings, according to the Stillwater News Press.

The policy was revoked 16 hours after it was created, the newspaper reported.

Mindy Ragan Wood416-4420mwood@normantranscript.com

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