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Watch Now: Mayor weighing mask mandate, limit on indoor event size as COVID-19 skyrockets in Tulsa County

A mask mandate and 250-person limit on indoor events are both possible response options to the COVID-19 surge gripping Tulsa County and to a lesser extent Oklahoma, according to Mayor G.T. Bynum.

Tulsa County recorded 259 new reported cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, dwarfing its previous single-day record of 143 on Sunday. The state also upped its single-day benchmark to 482.

The county’s seven-day rolling average of new positives has skyrocketed to 131 cases per day compared to 14 at the beginning of the month, an 835% increase. The current level is 385% above the April peak seven-day average of 27 cases per day.

Bynum discussed his thoughts on a mask mandate and a 250-person cap on indoor gatherings — two restrictions he considers to be “on the table” — during a news conference Wednesday. Bynum said he and Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt are trying to act in concert so that the state’s two largest metros are affected in the same way at the same time.

Bynum also is in contact with state health officials, and the mayor said he wants to include suburban municipalities in the discussion, with a meeting involving those leaders set for Friday.

“I don’t want us to run into what we by necessity ran into in the early going of this pandemic where Tulsa did something and then it was a scramble for our suburban neighbors to understand why we had done it and decide if they were going to do it or not,” Bynum said. “I’d really rather us talk as a group and decide if we’re going to do something — because this is impacting all of Tulsa County not just the city of Tulsa — what does that look like.”

Reality worse than models

Bruce Dart, Tulsa Health Department executive director, said the past two 14-day rolling cycles of data have shown new positive cases at a rate greater than the agency’s models projected here. Hospitalizations also are at an all-time high, though the hospital system isn’t close to being overwhelmed, he said.

Officials expected an increase with the local economy reopened but not at this pace, he said.

“We got a lot of push-back about why we’re using models and the models aren’t relevant,” Dart said. “We’re finding that the reality is actually worse than what the models were showing us could possibly happen.”

Dart said the next six weeks are crucial to again flatten the curve to keep everyone safe as THD scrutinizes data for each two-week cycle, particularly after President Donald Trump’s rally at the BOK Center. The disease’s incubation period is two to 14 days and asymptomatic people prior to testing could be unknowingly spreading the virus, he said.

“If people really start to follow recommendations today at the end of that six weeks hopefully we can start to see — even with the incubation that we’re seeing today — some flattening of the curve and downward trend in cases,” Dart said. “But we have to start right now.”

The most new cases are coming from weddings, funerals, faith-based activities, bars, gyms, house gatherings and other small events — otherwise dubbed as the “serious seven” by Oklahoma City health officials and now co-opted by their counterparts in Tulsa.

Dart noted his department isn’t seeing a large number of cases from grocery stores, likely because of proper social distancing measures. He emphasized the importance of wearing a face mask in public to protect others.

“I’m not sure when masks became a political issue, but masks are very much a public health issue,” Dart said. “Wearing a mask is a selfless and kind act and shows that we care about others, that we care about more people than just ourselves. Our world, frankly, could use some small acts of kindness right now.

“Until there is a vaccine, or 60% to 70% herd immunity, this is our new normal. Masks are our new normal.”

Local officials more open to restrictions than state

Oklahoma Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye on Tuesday told the Tulsa World that the state is trying to figure out what the “new normal” will be as COVID-19 surges.

The state doesn’t appear to have any plans to retreat to some prior stage or reopening. Frye said Gov. Kevin Stitt’s initial restrictions were to “push the surge off to the right” to prepare the health system, which has been accomplished.

“I’m not aware of any cutoffs right now that are designated for going back in phases,” Frye said.

The CDC recommends wearing a cloth face cover in public settings where social distancing is difficult to maintain. It also warns that the highest risk gatherings are large and where, again, social distancing is tough.

Earlier in the pandemic the CDC’s guidance was a limit of 250 people at an event.

Bynum said one of the state’s challenges is imposing regulations across the board when Oklahoma City and Tulsa are so much more dense population-wise than the rest of Oklahoma.

The mayor said he’s been apprised that the many protests against police brutality and racism aren’t the drivers of the surge, but the events or establishments identified in the “serious seven” are pushing it.

State and local health experts say it’s too soon to see any public health effects from Trump’s campaign rally in the data but should see them within the next 14 days or so.

“On the one hand, I’m perfectly ready to put that (indoor event size) regulation in place if we feel like it would be helpful, but I also don’t want to put a regulation in place that isn’t really addressing the cause of the uptick that we’re seeing,” Bynum said.

Holt, Oklahoma City’s mayor, on Tuesday said that if hospitalizations keep increasing at the current pace in his metro, or deaths return to their peak rate, there will be “little choice but to roll back to earlier phases of our reopening.”

“This is a critical week, and we will be watching this data every day,” he said.

Bynum cites ‘legal issues’ concern over Trump rally

The topic of Trump’s controversial visit to Tulsa and why the campaign rally was allowed to happen with no limits on crowd size or with mandated social distancing measures came up again at the news conference.

A Tulsa World reporter asked why Bynum has in part placed the onus on the state by saying the city is following state guidelines for not limiting the rally in some fashion. But the state’s social distancing measures leave those decisions up to local officials or business owners.

Bynum replied that he told the BOK Center’s management group that he felt it could decide on its own what it could safely do and would support it no matter what it decided.

“What I did not want to do was get into the business of throwing out a regulation that’s designed to impact one event,” Bynum said. “I think that has legal issues around it.”

Doug Thornton, executive vice president for Arena, Stadia and Theaters at ASM Global, previously has said that city officials expressed “no concerns from a public safety standpoint,” advising the management group to “support the event to the greatest extent that the state and the president would allow.”

Bynum said last week he was unaware of the invitation until BOK Center management asked the city about police support for the event. But Thornton later in the week said that ASM Global made state and city leaders fully aware early on about Trump’s plans to hold an event at the BOK Center before approving an agreement.

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

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Tim Stanley: 70 years after Korean War's start, Haskell native wants his hometown's contribution to be remembered

After nearly two years at war, the familiar ground of the family farmstead sure felt good under Tuel Cole’s feet.

But if he expected an emotional reunion to unfold, the idea was quickly dispelled.

“I’d just got out of the car,” Cole recalled, “and Arzie, my brother, comes out the back door of the house. He says, ‘Hey boy, how you doing? Good to see you home.’”

“Then he said, ‘Hey, as soon as you get in and get a little rest, I got 40 acres of soybeans that need plowing.’”

Cole, now 89, laughs at the memory. He didn’t hold it against his brother, who’d been like a father to him since their dad died years earlier.

“He basically raised me,” he said.

And as Cole would learn later, that kind of ho-hum response was fairly typical for returning Korea veterans.

Unlike those of World War II, who’d been hailed as conquering heroes, “everybody acted like we’d been on vacation,” said Cole of the Korean War, which began 70 years ago Thursday.

Over the decades that followed, as Korea went on to fade largely from the public memory, its survivors would come to think of it as the “Forgotten War.”

But Cole hasn’t forgotten. And besides the war in general, there’s one aspect he especially wishes more people knew about:

The contributions of his Haskell-based National Guard unit, which sent more than 100 young men to the war.

Cole, who now lives in Catoosa, reached out to us a few months back when his unit was planning what was intended to be their last hurrah.

Having met every year since the war ended in 1953, the dwindling group had decided to hold one more reunion in May.

Then, COVID-19 happened.

After months of planning, “we finally decided to cancel,” Cole said, with a sad shake of his head.

But the story of that unit, even if it never reunites again, is still worth remembering, he added.

Farm boys go to war

The Korean War, as it would come to be known, officially started on June 25, 1950, with communist North Korea’s invasion of South Korea.

A U.S.-led United Nations force responded to support the South Koreans, only to have neighboring China begin secretly sending in forces to back the North.

With the conflict’s start, the local National Guard in Haskell, which had been used in WWII, would again mobilize to go overseas.

Making up the 45th Infantry Division’s 160th Field Artillery, many of them were farm boys like Cole, who at 19 had just finished his first year at Oklahoma A&M.

They hailed not just from Haskell, but Coweta, Porter and other nearby communities. Troops from other states were also added in to give the unit its full complement.

Disembarking in Korea on Christmas Eve, they got a taste of how extreme the conditions there could be.

Cole and his comrades, duffel bags in tow, rode 50 frigid miles in the back of truck. When they reached their camp, they could barely move.

“We were so cold that we fell off of those trucks,” he said. “We didn’t get off, we fell off.”

“Nothing worked,” said Cole, adding that their limbs were so numb, “you just slid yourself off, fell down on the ground. Then you wiggled around until you got enough warmth in and you were able to stagger to your feet.”

Ahead of them lay many more long winter weeks, with temperatures in the mountainous terrain reaching as low as 30-below zero.

Cole’s artillery unit, equipped with 150-mm howitzer guns, had one primary goal: to support the infantry troops by firing at enemy positions.

The job kept them positioned well behind the battle lines.

Cole was on a crew of one gun. He’d set his gun’s elevation then, when his sergeant yelled, he’d fire the gun by pulling its lanyard.

The howitzer “would jump a couple of inches off the ground. You heard the noise, you saw the smoke come out of the barrel. You emptied the chamber. And you were ready to go again,” he said.

They’d stay in one place for a few weeks before moving on, he said, depending on where the fighting was.

Cole remembers losing only one guy, a soldier who stepped on a trip wire and triggered a mine.

But everyone suffered after-effects.

That included lingering nerve damage from the extreme cold, as well as hearing loss. Their eardrums took a pounding from the howitzers, and the effects only got worse as they aged.

Cole said he and his good buddy Joe Fodor, a fellow 160th veteran who now lives in Colorado, finally gave up on phone calls.

“Joe loves to try to talk to me and I love to try to talk to him. But neither one of us can hear, and we’d be 30 minutes getting three ideas across,” Cole said, laughing.

Instead, they write each other letters, he said.

Overdue appreciation

The war ended in 1953 after three years.

The fact that it was short compared to other conflicts is one reason people tend to forget Korea, Cole believes.

But don’t be fooled by the duration, he said. The war still claimed over 36,000 American lives.

Afterward, Cole went on to a career in education. He taught high school physics in Hulbert and Wagoner.

He and his wife, Jemolee, also a retired teacher, celebrated their 64th anniversary last week.

The military reunions began after the war.

They were held every year in Haskell until last year, when the spring’s record flooding cut the town off. Instead, a handful of the veterans met at a restaurant in Broken Arrow.

Today, of the 107 who served in Korea, around 25 are still living, Cole said.

He is disappointed the “grand finale” reunion didn’t happen.

He said it’s unlikely that they will try again.

“Everybody is so old,” Cole said. “They have a hard time getting up and getting around. It gets to the point it’s just not worth it.”

What is worth the effort, he said, is keeping alive the memory.

While his own focus is the Haskell boys, he hopes people will remember all the young Americans who served bravely in Korea, enduring hard fighting and miserable conditions, only to have their sacrifices go largely unacknowledged.

“We should appreciate them,” Cole said. “And also the parents who let their sons go defend their country.”

“That is the message I want to get across more than anything else.”

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Appeals court orders dismissal of Michael Flynn prosecution

WASHINGTON — A divided federal appeals court on Wednesday ordered the dismissal of the criminal case against President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, turning back efforts by a judge to scrutinize the Justice Department’s extraordinary decision to drop the prosecution.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said in a 2-1 ruling that the Justice Department’s move to abandon the case against Flynn settles the matter, even though Flynn pleaded guilty as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation to lying to the FBI.

The ruling, a significant win for both Flynn and the Justice Department, appears to cut short what could have been a protracted legal fight over the basis for the government’s dismissal of the case. It came as Democrats question whether the Justice Department has become too politicized and Attorney General William Barr too quick to side with the president, particularly as he vocally criticizes, and even undoes, some of the results of the Russia investigation.

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing Wednesday centered on another unusual move by Barr to overrule his own prosecutors and ask for less prison time for another Trump associate, Roger Stone. Barr has accepted an invitation to testify before the panel on July 28, a spokeswoman said Wednesday, and he will almost certainly be pressed about the Flynn case.

Trump tweeted just moments after the ruling became public: “Great! Appeals Court Upholds Justice Departments Request to Drop Criminal Case Against General Michael Flynn.”

Later, at the White House, Trump told reporters he was happy for Flynn.

“He was treated horribly by a group of very bad people,” Trump said. “What happened to Gen. Flynn should never happen in our country.”

Flynn called into conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and said the ruling was a good development for him and his family. But he also called it “great boost of confidence for the American people in our justice system because that’s what this really comes down to — is whether or not our justice system is going to have the confidence of the American people.”

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan had declined to immediately dismiss the case, seeking instead to evaluate on his own the department’s request. He appointed a retired federal judge to argue against the Justice Department’s position and to consider whether Flynn could be held in criminal contempt for perjury. He had set a July 16 hearing to formally hear the request to dismiss the case.

Judge Neomi Rao, a Trump nominee who was joined by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, wrote that Sullivan had overstepped his bounds by second-guessing the Justice Department’s decision. This case, she said, “is not the unusual case where a more searching inquiry is justified.”

“To begin with,” she added, “Flynn agrees with the government’s motion to dismiss, and there has been no allegation that the motion reflects prosecutorial harassment. Additionally, the government’s motion includes an extensive discussion of newly discovered evidence casting Flynn’s guilt into doubt.”

She called Sullivan’s scrutiny of the government’s request an “irregular and searching” step that could force the government to have to publicly justify its decision in this case and others.

“Our precedents emphatically leave prosecutorial charging decisions to the Executive Branch and hold that a court may scrutinize a motion to dismiss only on the extraordinary showing of harassment of the defendant or malfeasance such as bribery — neither of which is manifest in the record before the district court,” she wrote.

Some critics of the Justice Department’s dismissal urged the full appeals court to take up the case and reverse the decision of the three-judge panel, as it is empowered to do.

In a dissent, Judge Robert Wilkins said it appeared to be the first time his court had compelled a lower court judge to rule in a particular way without giving the judge a “reasonable opportunity to issue its own ruling.”

“It is a great irony that, in finding the District Court to have exceeded its jurisdiction, this Court so grievously oversteps its own,” wrote Wilkins, an appointee of former President Barack Obama.

Flynn was the only White House official charged in Mueller’s investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI days after the president’s January 2017 inauguration about conversations he had had during the presidential transition period with the Russian ambassador, in which the two men discussed sanctions that had been imposed on Russia by the Obama administration for election interefence.

The Justice Department moved to dismiss the case in May as part of a broader effort by Barr to revisit some of the decisions reached during the Russia investigation, which he has increasingly disparaged.

In its motion, the department argued that Flynn’s calls with the Russian ambassador were entirely appropriate and not material to the underlying counterintelligence investigation. The department also noted that weeks before the interview, the FBI had prepared to close its investigation into Flynn after not finding evidence that he had committed any crimes.

But the retired judge appointed by Sullivan, John Gleeson, called the Justice Department’s request a “gross abuse” of prosecutorial power and accused the government of creating a pretext to benefit an ally of the president. Henderson, the other judge in the majority, had asked skeptical questions of lawyers for Flynn and the Justice Department during arguments earlier this month, raising the prospect she would decide in favor of leaving the case in Sullivan’s hands.

But she ultimately ruled in favor of dismissing the case.

Early in-person primary voting begins Thursday

Early in-person voting for Tuesday’s elections begins Thursday at county election boards across the state.

In Tulsa, early in-person voting will be available only at the Tulsa County Election Board, 555 N. Denver Ave. Polls will be open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.

Voters should bring approved identification and are strongly encouraged to wear face masks and practice social distancing for the protection of election workers and other voters.

Voters should be prepared to wait longer than usual because of measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, said Tulsa County Election Board Secretary Gwen Freeman.

In a related matter, Freeman said 30,721 absentee ballots have been requested for the upcoming election, which is more than 4.5 times more than were requested for the same election four years ago.

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3 men indicted on murder charges in killing of Ahmaud Arbery

ATLANTA — Three white men have been indicted on murder charges in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man fatally shot while running in a suburban neighborhood near Georgia’s coast.

Prosecutor Joyette Holmes announced Wednesday that a grand jury has indicted Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. on charges including malice and felony murder in Arbery’s death.

“This is another positive step, another great step for finding justice for Ahmaud, for finding justice for this family and the community beyond,” Holmes said at a news conference outside the Glynn County courthouse in Brunswick that was streamed online by news outlets.

Arbery’s death has often been invoked during protests against racial injustice that have broken out across the nation since George Floyd’s death last month under a white Minneapolis police officer’s knee. Arbery’s death also fueled a renewed push for a state hate crimes law in Georgia, which state lawmakers passed on Tuesday.

Lawyers for the McMichaels have cautioned against a rush to judgment and have said the full story will come out in court. A lawyer for Bryan has maintained that his client was merely a witness.

Arbery was slain Feb. 23 when the Greg and Travis McMichael, a white father and son, armed themselves and pursued the 25-year-old Black man running in their neighborhood. Greg McMichael told police he suspected Arbery was a burglar and that Arbery attacked his son before being shot. Arbery’s family has said he was out for a jog.

Bryan lives in the same subdivision, just outside the port city of Brunswick. Bryan said he saw the McMichaels driving by and joined the chase, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Richard Dial testified earlier this month at a probable cause hearing.

It wasn’t until May 7 — two days after Bryan’s cellphone video leaked online and stirred a national outcry — that the McMichaels were arrested. Bryan was arrested on May 22, and an arrest warrant said he tried “to confine and detain” Arbery without legal authority by “utilizing his vehicle on multiple occasions” before Arbery was shot.

Bryan told investigators that Travis McMichael cursed and said a racist slur as he stood over Arbery, moments after he fatally shot him, Dial testified.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case after the video surfaced. The state attorney general appointed Holmes, who’s the district attorney in Cobb County near Atlanta, to prosecute after the local district attorney recused herself because Greg McMichael had worked for her — and two other outside prosecutors also stepped aside.

In addition to malice murder and felony murder charges, the McMichaels and Bryan each are charged with two counts of aggravated assault and one count each of false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

Under Georgia law, a felony murder charge means that a death occurred during the commission of an underlying felony and doesn’t require intent to kill. Malice murder requires “malice aforethought, either express or implied.” Any murder conviction in Georgia carries a minimum sentence of life in prison, either with or without the possibility of parole.

Court functions in Georgia have been severely limited in recent months because of a statewide judicial emergency declared by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Holmes said they were able to call in a grand jury that had been impaneled prior to the judicial emergency.

Attorneys for Arbery’s mother and father issued statements applauding the indictment and stressing their desire to see the three men convicted and sentenced for his death.

Bob Rubin, a lawyer for Travis McMichael, 34, said in an email that prosecutors choose the facts they want to present to a grand jury when seeking an indictment. The defense team has found other facts “that are an integral part of the case,” he wrote.

“To this indictment, Travis McMichael will plead not guilty, and we look forward to presenting all of the facts regarding this tragic death in a court of law,” Rubin wrote.

Attorney Kevin Gough, who represents Bryan, 50, spoke to reporters at the county courthouse right after Holmes announced the indictment.

“We welcome the action of the grand jury today,’ Gough said. “While we disagree with it, it’s an important step in the process to moving this case closer to the speedy trial that Roddie has demanded.”

He said his client has committed no crime and has cooperated with law enforcement officers from the beginning.

Lawyers for Greg McMichael, 64, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday afternoon.

Even if Gov. Brian Kemp signs the state hate crimes legislation passed this week, it couldn’t be applied retroactively to this case, Holmes told reporters. The U.S. Department of Justice has said it’s assessing whether federal hate crimes charges are appropriate.