How Mask Mandates Were Beaten Down in Rural Oklahoma

On April 6th, at the last in-person meeting of the Guthrie city council, the mayor, Steve Gentling, wore a purple face mask and sat six feet from each of his colleagues. The dais where council members typically sit elbow to elbow was half full, to allow for proper social distancing; the lectern where citizens normally air their grievances in five-minute monologues stood empty. Guthrie, Oklahoma, a town thirty miles north of Oklahoma City, was on the cusp of locking down in response to the coronavirus, along with the rest of the United States, but the council had not yet codified how the confusing new nomenclature—“stay at home” vs. “shelter in place”—would be enforced on local streets. The city manager, speaking through an orange mask, presented a proposal that he said was inspired by an effective virus response in Central Europe: mandatory face masks for all residents while in public, with a fine of as much as five hundred dollars for noncompliance. The council, which is nonpartisan, passed the measure unanimously. Guthrie, a community of roughly eleven thousand people, became one of the first places in the U.S. to require face masks in public.

To Gentling and other council members, legally mandating the use of face masks in public represented a compromise between the need to protect community health and the need to keep Guthrie’s economy functioning. “We were following C.D.C. guidance,” Gentling told me. “We felt that the mask was a pretty important barrier to the spread of the virus.” (Singapore, Germany, and about fifty other countries also require masks in public.) At least four other Oklahoma communities soon followed Guthrie’s lead in requiring them. Chickasha, a small oil town surrounded by towering rigs south of Oklahoma City, passed a mask ordinance in mid-April. “The face mask doesn’t protect me,” Chris Mosley, the mayor, said. “It keeps me from possibly infecting somebody else.”

Oklahoma and its four million people are easy to stereotype as an extreme endpoint of American mythology—skepticism of big government, worship of the free market, deification of the rugged, independent settler. There’s some truth and brutal history to all of it. In the response to the coronavirus, though, local officials were unlikely leaders in forcing the state to respond to the virus by enacting government mandates designed to insure public health. First, mayors in the state’s major cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, issued shelter-in-place orders for all residents. (The governor had only ordered a “safe at home” order in which people over sixty-five or with underlying health conditions were told do so.) Then it was Guthrie and other small towns, seemingly the furthest removed from the threat of the virus, that took the most extreme measures to stop it.

As politics gets more local, the sway of national ideology often ebbs. Many of the city councils governing rural life across Oklahoma are nonpartisan, as are an estimated seventy per cent of municipal governments across the country. In Guthrie and Chickasha, the mayors are registered Republicans who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. But they haven’t dismissed public-health officials’ recommendations as the President sometimes has, and they’ve responded to the threat more aggressively than has the state’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt.“When you’re dealing with local politics, survival is all that’s going on,” Mosley, the Chickasha mayor, told me. “Party affiliation doesn’t really matter.”

Steve Gentling, the mayor of Guthrie, Oklahoma, voted in favor of keeping the town’s mask ordinance. “We’re not over this by a long stretch.”

When the Guthrie city council enacted its face-mask ordinance, the town and the surrounding area of Logan County, which has a total population of forty-eight thousand, had only six confirmed cases of COVID-19. (The state of New York had more than two hundred thousand cases when Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a similar decree, via executive order, more than a week later.) About two-thirds of Oklahoma’s confirmed cases, and nearly seventy per cent of its deaths, have occurred in largely rural areas that don’t have the medical infrastructure to handle a virus outbreak. About sixty-five per cent of Oklahoma’s counties, including the one where Guthrie is located, lack a single I.C.U. bed. For them, the fear is not having as many coronavirus cases as Oklahoma City. It’s having as many as Guymon, a town of eleven thousand in the western panhandle that now has more than seven hundred confirmed cases, the second most in the state, due to an outbreak at a pork-processing plant. “A lot of these rural hospitals have either been cut back or closed,” Randolph Hubach, the director of the Sexual Health Research Lab at Oklahoma State University, who studies health outcomes in rural Oklahoma, told me. “The extent to which we’ve really hindered the capacity of rural communities and public health in general is starting to show in our incidence rates, but also in our death rates.”

After the Guthrie ordinance passed, the majority of residents began wearing masks, and some praised the council’s leadership. But Gentling also began fielding calls from irate residents, who said the government couldn’t force them to wear masks. Someone posted on a local Facebook page that he hoped the city councillors would contract the virus and die. In another Oklahoma-based Facebook group, which promotes parental rights to keep their children unvaccinated, Guthrie residents railed against the requirement. Frank Urbanic, a criminal-defense attorney in Oklahoma City, found ten residents to serve as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Guthrie, arguing that the ordinance violated the Constitution and was an example of government overreach. (The case was later dismissed by a federal judge.)

On April 27th, after the lawsuit was filed, the city amended its ordinance to state that masks were only required in places where social distancing was impossible, such as grocery stores. On May 5th, a month after the council enacted the mask requirement, it met again, this time via Zoom rather than at city hall. Enthusiasm for the mask ordinance among Guthrie’s leaders had evaporated. Mask-wearing was a personal responsibility, one councillor said. Another added that aligning with the more lenient state directives made more sense. The council voted, 6–1, to rescind the mask rule. Urbanic and his clients were pleased to see Guthrie abandon the measure. “We sent a message to not only Guthrie but every other city that the people in the city are not going to just sit back and take whatever laws that are made,” Urbanic told me. “There are people who are going to question these things and take action when necessary.” Only Gentling voted in favor of keeping it. “I would have liked to see it go at least a couple of weeks, until our next city council meeting, to see if the numbers stayed low,” he told me. “We’re not over this by a long stretch.”

Led by Stitt, the Republican governor, Oklahoma’s state government is currently implementing one of the country’s fastest reopening plans. By early June, many businesses could be operating near normal capacity. The number of confirmed cases in the state—six thousand one hundred and eleven, as of May 26th, along with three hundred and eighteen deaths—has not matched the dire figures that were forecast a month ago. Stitt has cast his reopening plan as a vindication of the state’s mitigation plan. “I want Oklahoma to be the first state in the nation to get its wings back,” he said in an address on May 14th.

But George Monks, the president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, called the timeline “hasty at best.” Available data from the state health department show that the percentage of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies—meaning they have previously carried the virus—could be as low as 3.3 per cent. (In New York City, the estimate is about twenty per cent.) Opponents, like the fifty-five thousand members of a Facebook group called “Save our State: Calling on Governor Stitt to Act NOW,” believe that the governor is endangering public health. Local leaders in Guthrie and other towns have found themselves caught between state politics, economic imperatives, and a clear scientific consensus.

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