OKC mask mandate
The OKC City Council voted 5-4 Tuesday, March 30, 2021, to defer a vote on ending the city's mask mandate early. (Matt Patterson)

A motion to defer a decision on whether to end Oklahoma City’s mask mandate before its scheduled expiration date passed the OKC City Council by a 5-4 margin today.

That means the council will next decide whether to end the city’s mask mandate at its April 13 meeting. The current mandate is slated to expire April 30.

In a statement released last week announcing the proposed early expiration, councilmembers Mark Stonecipher and Todd Stone cited reduced infection numbers, and the desire to improve economic activity within the city as their primary reasons for wanting the mandate to end.

“It is important to our local economy that we allow for more robust economic activity and that we don’t lose ground to our neighbors who are also loosening their restrictions,” Stonecipher said in a statement last week.

Stonecipher said Tuesday that mask wearing should be a personal choice, not mandated by the city in perpetuity.

This should begin with science and end with science and we have been quite adamant about that,” he said. “We should also take into consideration what the Supreme Court says we can and can’t do when infringing upon individual liberties for public safety. What the Supreme Court teaches us is that any intrusion should be minimal and should not extend beyond a lengthy period of time and should definitely not be indefinite.”

But after hearing from county health officials who cautioned the council on rising case loads, Stonecipher decided to make a motion to defer the vote for two weeks.

Health officials warn of rising numbers

The science does not appear to be on the side of those who want an early end to the mask mandate. Local health officials painted an optimistic, but cautious picture of the city and county’s current rate of COVID-19 infections.

Oklahoma County Health Department director of public health protection Phil Maytubby said it’s hard to get an accurate picture of where things are with the virus because testing has fallen by 75 percent over the last month.

“Right now, our testing is so low we don’t know if we have an accurate reflection of what’s going on in Oklahoma,” he said. “And just to add, we have a 10 percent rise in cases nationally. We have cases rising in 30 states. We don’t have castle walls or anything around the border of Oklahoma, so we know we will eventually have some issues here. And that’s one of the reasons we’re apprehensive about pulling the plug.”

Still, the city and county are doing well when it comes to vaccinations. Maytubby said more than 1.5 million doses have been administered across the state. At the Oklahoma County level, 50 percent of those ages 65 and up have been fully vaccinated with another 38 percent currently between their first and second doses. About 18.5 percent of all county residents have been vaccinated, he said.

Council members debate mandate

Despite the motion to defer, several council members maintained their objection to the mask mandate currently in place.

Ward 3 councilman Larry McAtee, who will leave office this year, said it should be up to individuals as to whether they want to wear masks in public spaces.

I’m 84 years old,” he said. “I think I’m wise enough to analyze the facts and data that’s there and make a decision as to whether or not I want to mask, or not to mask. You are still not allowing you and I to make that decision.”

Ward 4 councilman Todd Stone also echoed the personal liberty view.

“What we are discussing here isn’t the wearing of the masks, but the mandating of wearing the mask by the city,” Stone said.

Cooper, Nice: Too early to end mandate

Ward 2 councilman James Cooper said he didn’t understand the point of revisiting the motion in two weeks given what public health officials had told the council. He said the mandate should remain in place at least until April 30 and that no further discussion or debate was necessary until that time.

“Why are we having a conversation right now about revisiting this in two weeks?” Cooper said. “All it’s going to do is put us right back into this position again where we’re debating something, that just today, we settled the debate. And it’s been settled for a while.”

Ward 7 councilwoman Nikki Nice said the public doesn’t want the debate. She said her constituents have greater concerns about vaccine distribution in the city’s most disadvantaged communities.

“I would have to disagree on a lot of folks wanting us to have this debate, and some of the reasons for that are clearly, as we looked at the numbers presented, 18.5 percent of residents in the community have been vaccinated,” she said. “We haven’t even gotten to half. We need to continue working through this before we just decide that we’re done.”

Nice, Cooper, McAtee and Ward 6 councilwoman JoBeth Hamon voted against deferring the motion to end the mandate for another two weeks. Hamon said it’s offensive to contemplate ending the mask mandate early.

“The energy that we’re sucking out of the room in this conversation is honestly sort of insulting to our public health officials, and I appreciate their grace and magnanimity throughout this conversation because I’m frustrated. I’m mad,” Hamon said.