For Now: ‘The emptier the city, the fuller our hearts’
Published: March 25th, 2020
Let me begin by recapping nine days in Oklahoma City that feel like a year. On March 15, our metro confirmed its first case of COVID-19 that was transmitted locally. That very day, I declared a state of emergency in Oklahoma City and issued a proclamation to limit local events and create distance on public transit. On March 16, President Trump asked all states that have local transmission to close bars, gyms, movie theaters, food courts, and restaurant dining rooms. The next day, March 17, we took those actions in Oklahoma City. Though we may not know the results for some time, I believe we saved lives by taking those actions, despite how difficult they were.
Nevertheless, today (March 24) we are saddened to hear that the first life in the metro has been claimed by COVID-19. Our deepest condolences and prayers go out to that person’s family. We know from the history of this virus around the world how deadly it can be, especially when you don’t act to limit its spread. That mortality rate is why our public health professionals call this the greatest threat to Oklahoma City’s public health in the past 50 years.
I have said throughout this crisis that our city has the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others that did not have the knowledge we have about COVID-19. We can also look to our own city’s history of response to pandemics. In 1918, when the first case of the Spanish Flu arrived in Oklahoma City, city leaders did not restrict gatherings for 11 days. When they finally did, The Oklahoman wrote that the city had “finally decided to close the schools, theaters and other places where crowds gather. … Had this been done at the outset it was possible the epidemic would have been checked.” We have been determined these past two weeks to learn from history, both recent and distant.
Just like with the Spanish Flu in 1918, limiting close personal contact is our only real tool of mitigation against COVID-19. For the past week, since our first actions, we have been listening to public health officials. We have been gathering best practices from other cities. We have been monitoring life in Oklahoma City and considering what further steps we can take to minimize the opportunities for COVID-19 to spread. Our first goal should be to eliminate the high-risk activities in our city. Closing the door to high-risk activities has been our total focus at City Hall the last few days.
While we were working through those issues in Oklahoma City, we were also coordinating with mayors in the metro and with Mayor [G.T.} Bynum in Tulsa. Yesterday, Mayor Bynum and I spoke to staff for the Governor by phone and suggested that he consider restrictions in just affected areas of the state, since there had been some pushback on the idea of statewide closures.
[Tuesday] afternoon, Governor Stitt took that action, closing non-essential businesses in the Oklahoma City metro and affected counties around the state. On behalf of the people of Oklahoma City, I want to thank the Governor for taking these actions. They are critical to saving lives. By taking them on a regional basis and not just city-by-city, it ensures their effectiveness. Again, I want to commend Governor Stitt and his team for taking this important step [on Tuesday].
Previous to that announcement, we had a proclamation prepared for my signature and we will be revising it as soon as this press conference is over to ensure that we mirror the Governor’s actions. There are also some relatively minor issues of local concern that we need to also address, and so we will distribute that proclamation, our third since March 15th, as soon as it is signed. It [is] available at okc.gov.
Dr. [Patrick] McGough of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department will share a few words in a few moments reminding us of critical best practices, but I wish to also state a few other points of emphasis today.
We encourage people to get outside, and in fact, it will likely be critical in the weeks ahead that we escape our homes and discover the simple joys of a family walk. But unfortunately, we ask that children do not use playgrounds, because the virus can survive on those hard surfaces for some time.
We ask that everyone respect that our older population is potentially more susceptible to the worst effects of COVID-19. Our older population should be protected at all costs. I commend Governor Stitt for highlighting that priority in his order today.
We are still assessing the impact of the Governor’s order on employers and retailers, but in any case, those that still remain open tomorrow must still continue to work towards social distancing.
We continue to encourage grocery shoppers to maintain normal shopping patterns. There is no food shortage and you will never be prohibited from grocery shopping. Therefore, there is no need to hoard food.
I want to commend the mayors of our state, especially Mayor Bynum and all our metro OKC mayors. Over the last nine days, we have grown very close in our coordination. We did what we had to do to save our people. We waited for no one.
I believe the actions taken by the Governor today effectively address all the highest-risk activities in our city that could most easily lead to the spread of COVID-19. Where it is high-risk, non-essential, and there was no other way to provide the service, it has been closed. Where it is high-risk, non-essential, but there was a way to modify it, that modification has been made. Of course we understand that these efforts do not mean that all risk has been eliminated. In the weeks ahead, we will continue to rely on science and the advice of public health professionals as we make further decisions locally.
Keep in mind that most further steps will require your buy-in. In a free society, the reality is that only you can force yourself to shelter in place. I wield a pen, not an army. I will need you to be my partner in any such effort. In exchange for your trust, I assure you I will not issue any proclamation without the unified voices of our public health community telling me to do so. To this point, that has been an informal conversation. With the stakes ever-escalating, I have asked Dr. McGough to chair a working group of public health professionals that will re-evaluate our local situation every 24 hours and each time will report a recommendation to me for actions that the City government should take.
This working group will include Tim Pehrson, the CEO of Integris, Dr. Leslie Hudson, Dr. Hiermila Haile, and Dr. Gary Raskob, Dean of the OU College of Public Health. And of course they will meet remotely.
Should they ever recommend actions that go further than what has already been ordered, I will rapidly vet that recommendation with a diverse working group of recognized community leaders. Democratic debate should not entirely cease just because of these extraordinary times. As they have been throughout, our decisions from here forward will be based on science and public health, they will be rapid, and they will be carefully weighed and thoughtfully made.
Now let me say a few words about the economic costs of COVID-19 and those who bear the load.
I know I speak for the Governor, other mayors and public health officials when I say that none of us are ignorant to the economic costs of what we are having to do as a community. But COVID-19 created this crisis, not us.
And like it or not, there is no safe harbor where COVID-19 spares us our economic toll. The only choice we have is how many people we let it kill along the way. Taking no action would have led to the same economic result. The virus would have spread unchecked, the death toll would have mounted, and the businesses would have closed anyways. But we chose the path of saving lives, and in the end, it will have made a difference.
But just because we accept the inevitability of economic loss does not mean we do nothing in response. In the days and weeks ahead, we can take certain concrete steps.
We should support our local businesses that are still trying to make it. I swear when we re-open the gyms, I will be the first one leading the charge back to the treadmill. But for now, let’s get some takeout.
We should open our wallets. Even though most of us may eventually feel an economic effect, some are paying a much greater price than others, simply because their chosen profession became overnight, through no fault of theirs, a threat to public health. Remember that their economic sacrifice is literally saving your life. Donate to a local charity that is supporting COVID-19 response. If you don’t know where to donate, try the funds set up last week at the Oklahoma City Community Foundation and the United Way. I also want to commend everyone in the nonprofit sector that is stepping up to take care of our kids as school closures continue.
And remember you don’t always need a charity to do good. Perhaps a certain barber or stylist in your life might receive a surprise check or Venmo in the weeks ahead. Would it break you to pay for a haircut or two that you never received, in exchange for your life? No, but it might mean the world to someone who can no longer practice their livelihood.
And at each level of government, we should activate as we can. At City Hall, we are already developing a support package for small businesses, and we will have more to say about that in the weeks ahead. I encourage our state and federal leaders to be creative as well. To those who are bearing the economic brunt of this pandemic, we owe our thanks, but that cannot be the end of it.
Now let me close with this. On Twitter this weekend, someone Tweeted at me that “… the City is so empty. Makes me sad to see our beautiful home so quiet on such a beautiful sunny day.” To that person and now to all of you, I say, think not of the emptiness as sad. It is a reflection of a community pulling together to literally save each others’ lives. The emptier the city, the fuller our hearts.