The Stillwater City Council has a headache from too much partying even though they weren’t the ones doing it. The councilors heard from bar owners worried about being shut down after Oklahoma State University students packed the bars on Washington Street, known locally as “The Strip” over the weekend, raising concerns in the community about whether students can be trusted to follow social distancing recommendations.
The councilors discussed the expected increase in COVID-19 cases associated with the students return.
Although the bar owners met with city officials in the weeks leading up to the students’ return, video surfaced over the weekend that appeared to show a lack of mask wearing and social distancing among bar patrons.
Willie’s Saloon co-owner Cheryl Cummings told the council her bar is limiting capacity, providing masks and adopting enhanced cleaning procedures.
She said video showing long lines to get into the bars is actually a sign that the owners are following guidelines.
“We have lines because we are all following the capacity recommendations,” Cummings said. “We are not allowing the normal number of people into our establishments so, of course, there are lines and those lines are longer than anyone is used to seeing ... on Washington Street alone we could all accommodate approximately 3,000 patrons at one time.
“With limitations on capacities and the second largest bar on Washington Street temporarily closed, we can now accommodate for approximately 1,000 patrons. Which leaves approximately 2,000 patrons standing in line on the sidewalks of Washington St. or at an alternative location such as a house party or social gathering.”
Shawn Walls, owner of The Union bar said a six second video that circulated over the weekend showing people packed onto the dance floor of his establishment isn’t an accurate representation of the measures he and his staff are taking.
The video has gone viral, making national news programs as an example of college students ignoring social distancing measures.
“As many of you guys have seen that six second video clip from The Union, it looks like my establishment fell short,” Walls said. “Not because I was being negligent of safety or disobeying the rules and regulations, but simply falling victim of the perception of a six-second video clip. The perception of that video portrays that my management and I are reckless and careless of human safety but that is not true.
“The reality behind that short and localized video clip is that we are following every recommendation from the state and the city level. We too are learning every night, in real time, on ways to be more productive with the student population, especially when it comes to social distancing.
"I want to ask all of you here today to not make a drastic political move based on the power of social media. I’m speaking for everybody in this community that has poured their heart and soul into their local businesses, that fear that the state and city level could change their life in one emergency shutdown ... Finding a solution is more complex than just shutting down our small businesses. Students will continue to find ways to gather in unregulated spaces, that will start a whole range of other problems and issues throughout our community. This pandemic is bigger than that.”
Mayor Will Joyce said there has been an uptick in cases of COVID-19 since Oklahoma state University students returned. An entire sorority house is currently under quarantine after 23 members tested positive for the virus.
Once the video surfaced, Joyce started hearing from people in the community who were concerned. He said he heard calls for everything from closing the bars down completely to going back to a shelter in place order like the city was under in April.
He said he understands the concern.
But overall, the percentage of OSU students testing positive is still in the range of 1%, he noted. Although not all types of testing are included in the Oklahoma State Health Department’s official numbers.
Students are the economic life blood of a city like Stillwater, which complicates matters.
“There’s nothing more important to the City of Stillwater than the health of its residents,” Joyce said. “There’s nothing more important to the City of Stillwater’s economic health than having students attending classes … If students aren’t on campus that’s a tremendous detriment to the community and certainly the community’s economy. Taking measures to keep the spread of COVID-19 manageable will be necessary to keeping those folks on campus. “
The mayor addressed the issue of crowds in bars and how to keep them open as safely as possible, saying he did extensive polling of other college towns and towns in the Big 12 specifically to see what they have done.
It appears that limiting bar capacity and requiring patrons to be seated for service helps to keep distance as much as its possible.
Joyce plans to implement an emergency declaration requiring those measures that will take effect in the next day or two.
“...in time for this weekend’s heavy bar activity,” he said.