7.30.21 – Jordan Green. Oklahoman – The last thing one Oklahoma City .. ‘It’s confusing’: Oklahoma businesses, schools respond to new CDC mask guidance.
The last thing one Oklahoma City coffee shop owner plans to do is require his customers to wear masks, but a school superintendent in rural northwest Oklahoma couldn’t make that decision even if he wanted to.
Oklahoma business and education leaders are among those responding to new masking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which now recommends that vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans alike wear masks indoors in areas where the coronavirus is rapidly spreading.
What abilities school leaders have to impose new coronavirus safety regulations are limited. And even in the private sector, where business owners can require customers to mask up, it’s a lack of desire to put new rules in place – not legal authority – that may allow customers to stay mask-free.
“It’s confusing, and it’s been confusing for a while,” said Jim Hopper, president of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association. “Unless there’s a mask mandate, they’ll have to make their own decisions.”
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In this October 2020 photo, customers are required to sit apart to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 at Cafe Evoke in downtown Edmond. THE OKLAHOMAN
Schools, universities encourage masks
Some Oklahoma businesses and institutions are reinstating mask mandates as COVID-19 cases rise, joining cities and businesses across the nation that have swiftly put mask mandates back in place following the CDC’s new guidance.
But under a new state law, those rules likely won’t be returning to schools.
Senate Bill 658, which took effect July 1, bars schools and universities from imposing mask mandates unless Gov. Kevin Stitt signs a new state of emergency declaration. It also blocks schools from requiring vaccinations for students.
“This is not the same fight as last year – we now have an effective vaccine that is available to anyone who wants one,” said Carly Atchison, a spokeswoman for the governor. “Governor Stitt will not issue a mask mandate or a vaccine mandate and believes parents have a right to decide the best way to protect their child.”
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The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, the state’s largest universities, are among those recommending that students and staffers wear masks. Oklahoma City Public Schools and Norman Public Schools are also encouraging masking.
Even if Stitt were to sign an emergency declaration, public school leaders say reviving masks mandates could be challenging.
“People in this part of the country, they’re worn out from the pandemic,” said Kyle Reynolds, superintendent of Woodward Public Schools in rural northwest Oklahoma. “I think, if and when we come to that point where we’re having to have that discussion about masking and so forth, it’s going to be even more contentious than it was last year.”
The Woodward district was one of several across the state that put mask mandates in effect last year as coronavirus case numbers spiked, even though school officials determined transmission levels remained low in schools.
If the governor did sign the order amid rising case numbers, Reynolds said he would press the school board to “make that call” on masking.
“If that’s what we have to do to stay in school, that’s what we need to do,” Reynolds said. “Right now, we don’t have to fight that battle.”
Business owners hope to avoid decision
There’s not much of an appetite for reviving masking requirements at Oklahoma City restaurants, nor is there a thirst to comply with them at coffee shops.
At the Ludivine restaurant in Oklahoma City’s Midtown, staffers started wearing masks again on Wednesday regardless of their vaccination status. But general manager Andy Bowen said he isn’t eager to make the same call for customers.
“At the present time, I don’t feel that we are the proper authority to mandate masks for our guests,” Bowen said. “However, I do hope that the proper authorities will take up the question.”
In this May 2020 photo, a table at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in Oklahoma City is closed to provide more distance between customers to help prevent the … Show more CHRIS LANDSBERGER
In Oklahoma City, that decision would fall in the hands of the City Council, though whether the Council will take up the issue once again remains to be seen.
In a text, Mayor David Holt told The Oklahoman he is “unaware of any such effort” to revive the city’s mask ordinance, which expired this spring. Councilman Mark Stonecipher, who pushed for the ordinance last year, could not be reached for comment as of press time.
Bowen hopes officials will make the decision soon.
“Sooner’s always better in a pandemic,” he said.
Coffee Slingers Roasters owner Isaac Williams said he agrees that masking isn’t his call to make. But even if city leaders do institute a new mask ordinance, he doesn’t plan to follow it, he said.
“I just can’t do it again,” Williams said. “We all wore masks, and right before the mask mandate was lifted, I quit wearing mine. Honestly, more than anything, it was just that I was tired of wearing it.”
Other dining establishments across the state may choose to implement their own masking requirements, Hopper, the restaurant association president, said. However, the restaurant association hasn’t yet issued formal advice to restaurants, other than to follow mask ordinances in effect in their locales.
But some business owners might not.
“I don’t think the business should be the mask police,” Williams said. “If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you don’t want to wear a mask, then don’t wear a mask.”
With cases of the Delta variant on the rise, some counties are reinstating mask mandates.
Federal rules demand masks even where state rules block them
Some Oklahomans will be subject to federal regulations that require masking, including school bus riders and defense employees.
A federal mandate from the Department of Transportation requires riders on public shuttles and buses – including public school buses – to wear masks, according to the CDC. And orders impacting federal properties, including military bases, mean Oklahomans working on those properties will have to cover their faces, too.
Officials at Tinker Air Force Base – which has more than 26,000 military and civilian employees – are requiring all service members, employees and visitors on base to wear masks indoors regardless of whether they’re fully vaccinated.
The news came Thursday in response to an order from U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks.
“The Tinker Air Force Base community is currently categorized as a high community transmission location,” Col. G Hall Sebren Jr., installation commander at Tinker, said in a Facebook post announcing the new rule. “Please continue to remain vigilant, stay healthy and I encourage all Team Tinker teammates to work with your medical provider to determine if vaccination is right for you.”
Vance Air Force Base in Enid is also requiring masks, officials said Wednesday.