The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across our state. At the time of the writing of this letter, our state and our city continue to see record-breaking numbers of active cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Hospitals are full, and testing is slowing down. The virus is spreading, and people are dying.
According to the most recent White House Coronavirus Task Force report from Nov. 8, “Oklahoma is in the red zone for cases, indicating 101 or more new cases per 100,000 population, with the 22nd highest rate in the country. Oklahoma is in the red zone for test positivity, indicating a rate at or above 10.1%, with the 11th highest rate in the country.”
This is our current reality. It is very sobering, but Oklahomans can all still do their part to limit the spread and protect ourselves and our loved ones by following the three Ws: wearing our masks, washing our hands and watching our distance. The “three Ws” have become the call to action from our state Health Department, medical professionals, and even our governor. Yet Nov. 15, the temporary amendment that allows local governments and governing bodies around the state to meet virtually has expired. “Watching our distance” will now become exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, when conducting city, county, and state business.
That same White House Coronavirus Task Force state report referenced earlier also recommended communities take a few basic actions immediately. One was stopping gatherings beyond immediate household until cases and test positivity are in the yellow zone. Yet our state Legislature seems to think those impacted by the Open Meeting Acts should do the opposite.
Forcing local governments and governing agencies around the state to meet in-person is absolutely one of the most dangerous things we could do, but fortunately one of the few problems that has a relatively easy solution. Our state leadership can call a special session to extend the ability of local governments and governing agencies the ability to meet virtually.
We understand a special session costs money. Oklahoma received $1.2 billion to support our COVID-19 response. Shouldn’t part of our response be invested in protecting the health of locally elected officials, hardworking staff, and community volunteers?
Who does this refusal to act impact? There are 586 municipalities in our state with multiple boards and commissions; Norman alone has over 40 not including the Pioneer Library System, the Central Oklahoma Master Conservancy District or the Norman Regional Hospital Authority. We have 77 counties that also have multiple boards. There are 537 school districts with school boards. Let’s not forget all of our state agency boards either. Literally thousands of councils, boards, and agencies will be impacted. Each with multiple people serving on them, many with families, as well as the people that will have to staff these meetings.
Gov. Stitt stated at his recent press conference that we will just have to wait a month for the state Legislature to begin their regular session on Feb. 1. One month? My calendar says we have over two months until Feb. 1. Further, while I want to be optimistic that the state Legislature would actually get to the issue on day one, but with the many issues facing our state I can’t help but be skeptical.
Are we not worth it? We answer the call of public service only to be rewarded with the turned backs of state officials who refuse to acknowledge the danger in which they are placing us. Why? Is meeting too inconvenient for you? Are our lives not worth enough to you?
Do your job, so we can safely do ours.