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As events return to Expo Square, county turns to Tulsa Health Department for guidance

When the Oklahoma State Fair was canceled Friday, the obvious question for many Tulsans was: What about the Tulsa State Fair?

Expo Square President and CEO Mark Andrus was ready with an answer.

“If you say, ‘What do I think right now?’ I am very optimistic that we will have a Tulsa State Fair, and that optimism is based on me being optimistic,” Andrus said.

He’s also realistic. Andrus said it was premature to make a decision now when the fair isn’t scheduled to begin until Oct. 1. He expects to have an answer by the end of July or early August. The Disney on Ice show, a popular staple of the fair, has been canceled.

For now, Andrus and his staff, in consultation with the fair board and the Tulsa Health Department, are working to make sure that as events return to the 240-acre facility, they do so safely.

Friday afternoon, Andrus joined County Commissioner Karen Keith and THD Executive Director Bruce Dart for a tour of the facility and to discuss the public safety precautions being implemented to protect visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I want to make sure that everything we do at Expo has the blessing of the Health Department,” Keith said.

After months of cancellations, Expo Square’s calendar is filling up, with horse shows booked through Thanksgiving and popular events like Braum’s An Affair of the Heart set for July 10-12 at the River Spirit Expo.

Keith said there will be more than enough space at the event for vendors and visitors.

“They will have plenty of room on that upper level (of River Spirit Expo) to allow all of the booths with a little more room between them than normal, and masks will be available at the door,” she said. “They have all of the hand-sanitizing stations, they have monitors at the bathrooms to keep them clean, that kind of thing.”

An Affair of the Heart organizers also plan to provide masks and a hand-sanitizing station.

Dart said he was glad to see the fairgrounds incorporating COVID-19 guidelines and recommendations into their events.

“We talked about having it so that everyone who attends is (voluntarily) masked and is aware of social distancing ... and hand-washing is available,” Dart said.

Dart’s review of the fairgrounds’ public health protocols Friday afternoon could turn out to be a harbinger of things to come for local event organizers and facility managers. In a Zoom meeting earlier in the day, Dart joined area mayors and city managers to discuss, among other things, the possible creation of a certification program for public events and the importance of normalizing wearing masks.

The goal of the program — which Dart emphasized is in the early stages of development — would be to ensure that events follow all recommended public health guidelines to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

“They (facility operators) would write out a plan for how they would hold an event to achieve those goals, submit it to us, we would review it, and have a conversation about how that would actually work within the context of their plan,” Dart said. “If we think we have both achieved all of the goals of having the event and keeping people safe, we would certify that, we would approve it.”

Mayor G.T. Bynum said last week that imposing a mask mandate was among the options “on the table” to respond to the latest COVID-19 surge. Officials who participated in Friday morning’s meeting, Dart said, also discussed the creation of a public-awareness campaign to educate people about the importance of wearing masks.

“We would try and normalize the concept of wearing masks in public for right now until we have vaccines and/or herd immunity,” Dart said. “If we can normalize these kinds of things and people accept that responsibility to protect themselves and others, then we are in a much better place than trying to force an issue that right now (has become) political.”


Look for the helpers: See what these Tulsans are doing to ease the stress of the coronavirus pandemic

Look for the helpers: See what these Tulsans are doing to ease the stress of the coronavirus pandemic

Fracking pioneer Chesapeake files for bankruptcy protection

NEW YORK — Chesapeake Energy, a shale drilling pioneer that helped to turn the United States into a global energy powerhouse, has filed for bankruptcy protection.

The Oklahoma City-based company said Sunday that it was a necessary decision given its debt. Its debt load is currently nearing $9 billion. It has entered a plan with lenders to cut $7 billion of its debt and said it will continue to operate as usual during the bankruptcy process.

The oil and gas company was a leader in the fracking boom, using unconventional techniques to extract oil and gas from the ground, a method that has come under scrutiny because of its environmental impact.

Other wildcatters followed in Chesapeake’s path, racking up huge debts to find oil and gas in fields spanning New Mexico, Texas, the Dakotas and Pennsylvania. A reckoning is now coming due with those massive debts needing to be serviced by Chesapeake and those that followed its path.

More than 200 oil producers have filed for bankruptcy protection in the past five years, a trend that’s expected to continue as a global pandemic saps demand for energy and depresses prices further.

Founded in 1989 with an initial $50,000 investment, Chesapeake focused on drilling in underdeveloped areas of Oklahoma and Texas. It largely abandoned traditional horizontal well drilling, employing instead lateral drilling techniques to free natural gas from unconventional shale formations.

It became a colossus in the energy markets, eventually reaching a market valuation of more than $37 billion. Then, the first in a series of financial shocks hit Chesapeake as the Great Recession sent energy prices into the basement.

The company closed Friday valued at around $115 million.

Chesapeake grew with lightning speed under one-time CEO Aubrey McClendon, known for his aggressiveness acquiring oil and gas drilling rights. He pushed the company to acquire enormous tracks of land in several states, taking on mounting debt along the way. Chesapeake in some ways became a victim of its own success as other companies followed its lead and U.S. energy production soared, driving down prices.

As Chesapeake was expanding at breakneck speed, natural gas prices were near $20 per million British thermal units, the benchmark for natural gas trading. But frackers like Chesapeake flooded the market with cheap natural gas, sending prices to well under $2.

McClendon left the company in 2013 with questions swirling about its business practices. On March 1, 2016, McClendon was indicted on a charge of conspiring to rig bids on energy leases in Oklahoma. McClendon died the following day, the single occupant in his Chevrolet Tahoe that smashed into a concrete viaduct at nearly 90 mph.

The coroner ruled his death an accident.

Chesapeake has paid millions of dollars since to settle charges of bid rigging.

Robert Lawler became CEO after McClendon’s death and began selling off assets to get Chesapeake’s debt under control. But that debt grew more threatening within two years as the fracking boom turn to a bust in 2015. Chesapeake reported a quarterly loss of $4 billion that year and the first wave of layoffs began with 750 jobs.

Despite Chespeake’s problems, Lawler last year remained the highest-paid CEO in Oklahoma with $15.4 million in compensation, according to a ranking compiled by The Associated Press and Equilar.

Chesapeake lost an eye-popping $8.3 billion in the first quarter of this year, and it listed $8.62 billion in net debt. The company said in a regulatory filing in May that “management has concluded that there is substantial doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps an integral part of Tulsa's COVID-19 pandemic response

Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps volunteers are invaluable to Tulsa’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic as health officials try to trace and curb the disease’s spread.

Bruce Dart, Tulsa Health Department executive director, last week said his agency began with three or four contact tracers. Now? There are about 60.

The tracing process involves notifying a person of a positive test and working with the individual to retrace their steps from 48 hours before symptoms arose to determine other potential exposures for monitoring, quarantining or testing.

Many THD contact tracers are volunteers through the Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps, or OKMRC. The group helps out during disasters or emergencies and offers assistance with public-health initiatives in calmer times.

“They’ve been extremely helpful,” Dart said. “I don’t think we’d be able to be where we’re at without our volunteer group from the OKMRC.”

Statewide, OKMRC has more than 7,300 volunteers, with approximately 400 joining since the pandemic began. Carrie Suns, OKMRC’s Tulsa County coordinator, said the number is growing daily and that more than 1,300 are in Tulsa County.

During a news conference June 17, Dart expressed concern that his response staff were becoming overwhelmed. He said the dedicated and motivated individuals have been “working themselves to the bone,” putting in long hours and seven-day weeks since the pandemic began to try to help keep their community safe.

“We’re working really hard on trying to switch people out — finding other people — so we can give people on the frontline a little extended break,” Dart said. “We think we have a plan and hope to finalize it and put it into place next week.”

OKMRC formed after the U.S. Surgeon General and White House created the Medical Reserve Corps in 2002 in response to 9/11. The OKMRC is Oklahoma’s only medical and public health volunteer program, according to its website, and has specialty teams and county units.

Suns said volunteers have jumped into several efforts for THD: contact tracing, negative results notification, mental health/stress response and phone bank operations.

Suns said a favorable aspect of the program is that volunteers can be as involved as they like, given people are busy. So OKMRC attempts to pre-identify and pre-credential volunteers before a disaster or emergency strikes.

OKMRC does have practicing and retired health care professionals who volunteer, but one doesn’t need to be a medical professional to join. She said it takes at least four non-medical personnel to support each medical personnel.

“They are some of the most amazing, dedicated, selfless, community servant-minded volunteers I have ever seen,” Suns said.


Gallery: The scenes before and during President Trump's rally in Tulsa

Gallery: The scenes before and during President Trump's rally in Tulsa

Next 'Let's Talk' virtual town hall to focus on Tulsa's economic future

Tulsa Metro Chamber leaders will be the guests for the next Tulsa World “Let’s Talk” virtual town hall.

Chamber President and CEO Mike Neal; Chairman Roger Ramseyer, vice president and Tulsa market leader for Cox Communications; and William Murphy, the chamber’s senior vice president of economic development, will take reader questions about Tulsa’s economic future.

The “Let’s Talk” virtual town hall series is sponsored by the George Kaiser Family Foundation. The conversation is moderated by Wayne Greene, editor of editorial pages for Tulsa World.

Questions for the event can be submitted to wayne.greene@tulsaworld.com before 10 a.m. Tuesday.