City councilors approved a citywide mask mandate that applies to most businesses that offer goods and services for off-site use. 

The mandate, adopted by a 5-3 vote, also applies to public gatherings where there are two or more individuals from different households. The measure, which will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, makes an exception for restaurants and home businesses typically closed to the public. 

Several area health care workers stood vigil outside City Hall in support of the mandate — councilors had rejected similar measures on five prior occasions. Leanne McWhirt, a nurse practitioner who helped organize the vigil, said the health care workers also showed up to represent the 30 people here in Muskogee County who died after being exposed to the novel coronavirus and contracting COVID-19.

Dr. Jonathan Baldwin said the mask mandate “is something that has been needed for a long time” from a medical standpoint. He said the lack of a statewide mandate is the reason “we are seeing the number” of COVID-19 cases “rise dramatically in Oklahoma.”

Baldwin said that while “masks won’t keep you 100% from getting it, they do decrease the spread, and probably decrease the amount of virus” a person gets if they are exposed to a person who is shedding the virus. He said while there is much more to learn about the coronavirus, Baldwin said those known to have a higher viral load are more likely to “get sick, to get really sick.”

“We don’t know enough about the virus yet to know exactly who is really going to have a bad time, but we know older people and those with co-morbidities have a higher risk,” Baldwin said, holding a candle in recognition of those in Muskogee County who died after contracting the coronavirus. “There are also people who are very healthy people who get really sick — we just don’t know why yet — until we find out those answers we should all have the compassion for one another to do what’s right.”

There was some pushback against the measure inside City Council Chambers. Gary Martin, pastor at Sanctuary Apostolic Church, renewed his objections to the mandatory provisions. Martin said his opposition is based upon his religious convictions.

“We don’t believe we are sheep — we are people of a republic, not under a dictatorship — and that we have the right of choice and free speech to say what we feel and do and live how we feel without being mandated by a governmental body,” Martin said. “A mandate is only enforceable if a superior court judge is the one who issues it, and then it would become law.”

Dr. Andrew Russell Olshen disputed claims by one resident who said there is no scientific evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of face coverings to slow transmission of the coronavirus. Olshen cited data compiled since Aug. 1 by Oklahoma State Health Department that show the increase of new cases in municipalities where mask mandates have been adopted is 70% lower than those where there are no mandatory restrictions. 

Olshen, who works for VA Medical Center, said he is more comfortable shopping in Tulsa, which adopted a mask mandate several months ago. He said consumers he recently encountered at a Muskogee grocery store were “just butting in front of me with no masks on.

“People don’t seem to care,” Olshen said. “We are not taking care of our neighbors.” 

Ward III Councilor Ivory Vann, who has tried since mid-July to pass a local mandate, said he was “happy” to “finally win enough support” to adopt the resolution. The resolution combines what he and Deputy Mayor Derrick Reed proposed a couple weeks ago and what Mayor Marlon Coleman offered as an alternative.

City Attorney Roy Tucker said there are no specific penalties for violations. Business owners, however, could pursue criminal trespass charges against consumers who fail to comply with the resolution, and disturbing the peace charges could be filed against those who create a disturbance. 

Major exceptions to the mandate are those the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have set out for medical reasons. Children who are 10 years or younger also are exempt, as are those who are exercising while maintaining appropriate personal distance and those competing during an indoor sporting event. 

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