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State officials trying to figure out 'new normal' as COVID-19 surges; no indication of backtracking on reopening

The state is trying to figure out what Oklahoma’s “new normal” is, closely monitoring data as new COVID-19 infections, active cases and hospitalizations surge in June, according to its top public health official.

There doesn’t appear to be any state plans to retreat to some level of restriction to try to quash the latest surge.

The seven-day moving average of new positive infections in Oklahoma is 393% above where it was on May 31, up to 340 per day from 69 per day. Active cases in the state are at 2,716, which is a 273% leap from 728. Hospitalizations are at 265, a jump of 114% from 124.

A Tulsa World reporter on Tuesday asked Dr. Lance Frye, State Health Commissioner, whether there is a threshold or rate of hospitalizations that would prompt the state to reimpose some measure of restrictions to flatten the latest surge.

Frye prefaced his reply by saying the initial restrictions were to “push the surge off to the right” to prepare the health system, with the state reopening in stages based on federal criteria.

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

Frye said he has daily discussions with Gov. Kevin Stitt about data and that increases are expected as the economy reopens. Frye noted that the availability of ICU beds — 227 of 849 were reported to be available Monday — is another important metric evaluated by the state.

Frye said COVID-19 is here to stay, so the state is trying to balance mental health, physical health and economic health as it moves forward and emphasizes a message of personal responsibility to decrease transmission.

“I think when we look at ourselves regionally compared to our neighbors, even though our numbers are going up, I think we’ve done a good job,” Frye said.

Stitt’s office didn’t directly answer questions emailed by the Tulsa World about whether the governor has any inclination to walk back the state’s reopening to some degree as new infections and hospitalizations surge — with hospitalizations serving as a key data point Stitt often cites. There were about 6,600 combined ICU and medical/surgery beds in Oklahoma as of Monday’s state data report. About 2,000 of those beds were available.

His office released a statement that the original public health measures Stitt put into place were to allow time to build a robust testing and tracing infrastructure, as well as expand hospital capacity and increase stock of personal protective equipment.

“As we are 61 days into the re-opening plan, it is understandable that positive cases may increase,” according to the statement from Stitt’s office. “The governor and his team are actively monitoring the data as we continue to respond to COVID-19. As the governor has said, COVID-19 is still in the United States and is still in Oklahoma.”

At least one prominent elected official in Oklahoma is acknowledging there is a potential to step back into an earlier phase of reopening if trends continue.

Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt in a Tuesday news conference stated that “very few people are dying” as the mortality rate stays low in the Oklahoma City metro but that hospitalizations are “right at their all-time highs for COVID-19.” He noted that the hospital system has been nowhere near being overwhelmed.

Holt said if hospitalizations keep increasing at the current pace, 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.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and Tulsa Health Department Executive Director Bruce Dart are scheduled to host a news conference addressing COVID-19 at noon Wednesday.

Dart on Monday told the Tulsa World that the next 10 to 14 days will help reveal what sort of public health ramifications will germinate out of Saturday’s campaign rally for President Donald Trump.

Frye said he watched television coverage of Trump’s rally. He said he was happy to see BOK Center staff handing out hand sanitizer and face masks, though he wishes he had seen better social distancing and more masks.

He said the state is in unknown territory as far as what to expect in monitoring how much more or how much longer Oklahoma’s COVID-19 numbers will go up.

“We’re trying to push out the message for everybody to keep doing their social distancing, washing their hands, not touching their face and wearing a mask — doing the things that we need to do,” Frye said.

Featured gallery: The scenes before and during President Trump’s rally in Tulsa

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

Owasso graduates finally have their day on the stage

Zoe Boschee, an Owasso High School senior, was still on spring break when she received the news.

Because of the coronavirus, the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s board of directors had voted to close Oklahoma public schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year.

“Somebody texted me and I said, ‘Wait. It’s like done, done?’” Boschee said. “That was really hard to process. I kept thinking, ‘No, we’re going back to school and I’ll get to see all of my friends again.’”

But that’s not how it turned out.

Ronan Locker, Owasso’s 2020 valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar headed to Stanford University, said he was thrilled — at first.

“With my senior-itis, it was like, ‘all my dreams are realized. I don’t have to go back to school,’” he said.

Then it hit him: “I would have to miss some of the most important things that happen in senior year, the things that happen the last nine weeks,” he said.

Like many others across the state and nation, Boschee, Locker and about 700 more Owasso seniors lost out on many of the activities, privileges and beloved traditions that go with the final months of a high school career.

But not graduation. Delayed for more than a month, the school’s 2020 commencement exercises finally unfolded Tuesday with 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. split ceremonies in Oral Roberts University’s Mabee Center.

Students in the first half of the alphabet walked across the stage in the afternoon session and the night session belonged to students in the second half of the alphabet.

Graduates had their temperatures taken as they entered the building and filled about 170 chairs, separated for social distancing, on the floor of the Mabee Center and the first four odd-numbered seating rows encircling the floor, with three chairs between graduates.

Each senior could invite four people, and an estimated 3,000 — also observing social distancing — filled much of the remainder of the arena for the afternoon session.

Amy Fichtner, Owasso superintendent, in her address to the 2020 class, said, “You will never forget this spring. You’ll never forget COVID and you’ll never forget the circumstances surrounding it.”

Fichtner expressed admiration for the work of the Owasso faculty and administration in remote educating during the trying time. She also praised “the families of the class of 2020 and the Owasso community. Thank you for your patience, your grace and your commitment to your childrens’ education.”

Locker apologized for including politics in his valedictory address and drew applause when he referenced the civil unrest and protests that have gripped the nation since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25.

“If we want to see progress in our lifetime, we all must take action,” Locker said. “Simply ignoring the problem (of racial inequality) will not make it go away. So I’d like to encourage you to educate yourselves on the past, stay informed on the present and fight for a different future.”

Owasso High School Principal Mark Officer urged the 2020 seniors to stay resilient when life throws them a curve. He said there’s probably no better example of that than the coronavirus.

“If we had sat down in August and tried to think of what we could do to blow up their senior years, we couldn’t have imagined this,” he said.

Officer said ORU officials “hung in there with us the last month as we worked so hard to make (graduation) a realistic opportunity. They’ve been great to work with.”

Owasso salutatorian Katy Turner, who is headed to Duke University, said the turmoil of the last three months made the ceremony even more special.

“We have to appreciate it more because it was gonna happen and then it was maybe gonna happen and now that we finally get to go through it, you have to appreciate it a lot more,” she said.

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Gallery: See images of Owasso High School’s 2020 graduation at Tulsa's Mabee Center

Gallery: See images of Owasso High School’s 2020 graduation at Tulsa's Mabee Center

BOK Center official: Future events will require guidance from city authority to be booked at BOK or Cox Business Center

Amid controversy over President Donald Trump’s rally Saturday, an official with BOK Center’s management company announced no events will be booked there or at the nearby Cox Business Convention Center without guidance from the Tulsa Public Facilities Authority.

Doug Thornton, executive vice president for Arena, Stadia and Theaters at ASM Global, said in a virtual special meeting Tuesday the company could provide a proposal “consistent with the operating plans that we’ve been working on in many other jurisdictions” as soon as the TPFA’s next regular meeting on Thursday.

Those plans, Thornton said, include updated health and safety protocols for staff and customers; sanitizing regularly at high-touch points; making adjustments to handling of seating, ticketing and concessions; and restricting what he called “public circulation” in concourses.

“Those are all elements that we activated last week. The only one that was not activated was the limitation of seating,” he said.

TPFA Chairwoman Marcia MacLeod said earlier there are still concerns about event center bookings during the pandemic even though “we’re on the other side” of the weekend of Trump’s rally. Thousands flocked to the BOK Center, though not enough to fill the arena.

John Weidman, whom the board agreed to contract with as legal counsel during Tuesday’s meeting, said “the operator (contractually) has to exercise all reasonable and customary precaution to prevent any harm or loss to all persons or property related.”

Citing that requirement, TPFA Trustee Kathy Taylor asked for a recommendation that ASM Global not open bookings for future events until it can provide the board with a reopening plan based on “expert advice” it receives.

The TPFA is described as a component unit of the city of Tulsa. The board leases the BOK Center from the city and contracts with ASM Global to run it, though MacLeod has said before that it does not have “unfettered authority” to revoke an event contract and compel its relocation to another venue.

Some board members last week bristled at the prospect of a large political rally taking place indoors and publicly questioned Thornton on why the BOK Center would host such an event this summer while the COVID-19 pandemic remains a public health threat.

Mayor G.T. 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 on Thursday told the TPFA board 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.

Tulsa Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart pushed for postponement of the rally, telling reporters it could further overwhelm efforts to conduct contact tracing and become a “super spreader” because of how many people would congregate as a result.

Weidman earlier told the board ASM Global is the “sole exclusive manager and operator” of the BOK Center and Cox Business Center but said it must follow TPFA policies and guidelines.

Hand sanitizer and face masks were available for all attendees on Saturday, but there was no mandate on their use or a formal requirement to practice social distancing.

The state of Oklahoma’s official reopening plan also does not establish mandates for entertainment facilities such as the BOK Center, instead stating, “It is at the discretion of business owners or local officials to determine when and if social distancing measures should be applied.”

Taylor on Tuesday initially proposed a resolution calling for the BOK Center and Cox Business Convention Center to follow “the strictest guidance” on safety protocols either from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Tulsa City-County Health Department.

However, she and the other board members agreed to defer considering adoption of that resolution until at least Thursday.

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Gallery: Scenes from before and after the president’s rally in Tulsa

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

Superintendent Gist's contract extended to 2023 amid dissent over timing of TPS board vote

The Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education approved a two-year extension to Superintendent Deborah Gist's contract during a special meeting that ended early Wednesday morning.

Gist's contract, which previously was set to expire in June 2021, will now continue through June 30, 2023. Board members discussed the contract for more than six hours in executive session before voting around 1 a.m. Only Jennettie Marshall and Stacey Woolley voted against the extension. 

For the first hour of the virtual meeting, a small group of community activists gathered outside the Education Service Center and protested the board vote, asking that it be pushed back to October.

Protest organizer Melissa Remington said she believes the decision needed to be delayed to give board members enough time to evaluate the superintendent’s reopening plan for the upcoming school year. Remington noted that the previous contract extension three years ago occurred in October and questioned why this vote is happening so much earlier.

“We think they should wait until October this year to make an informed decision based on the fact that we’ll have seen whether this coronavirus plan that she’s come up with actually works,” she said.

Remington also questioned the timing of the extension, which occurred exactly one week before a runoff election for two school board seats. She alleges that doing so is an “intentional” effort to prevent new potential board members from participating in the vote.

Her husband, Stephen Remington, was running against incumbent Ruth Ann Fate for the board’s District 6 seat until his elimination during the primaries in February. Fate will be on the ballot opposite University of Oklahoma Professor Jerry Griffin next Tuesday.

“I think that this (vote) was done a week before because they are aware that Ruth Ann does not have the vote,” Melissa Remington said.

Board President Shawna Keller said contract extensions typically occur between July and August, adding that the October 2017 vote was “pushing it.”

This year, Keller said it was important to have a clear, early answer of who would lead the district moving forward due to the unprecedented and potential long-term nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keller also said it was never the board’s intention to have the vote so close to the school board election, which originally was scheduled in April but was postponed due to the pandemic.

“Had the election been in April, we still would have had the contract discussion in June, basically,” she said. “So that part didn’t change.”

However, Keller said the board decided against delaying the vote despite the new election date in part because they didn’t want to overwhelm new members with such a momentous decision.

“It’s not fair to ask a brand new board member to come in and vote on Dr. Gist’s contract, I don’t think,” she said. “It’s not fair to them because they don’t even know what they don’t know. I can tell you having been there before as a new board member, there’s so much that goes on that isn’t in the news or the paper or on Facebook that happens behind the scenes to get to the stuff that is actually public interfacing.

“A lot of Dr. Gist’s evaluation and the option to renew or not her contract, I think is really based on those things. So it didn’t feel very fair to the new board member or to Dr. Gist either to have that decision made by someone who doesn’t understand the daily workings of the district, of the decisions that are made daily, of the amount of contact we have with her or the amount of work we put into things. I feel they would not have a complete picture from which to make that decision.”

Moments before voting against the contract extension, board member Stacey Woolley said her decision was less about Gist's performance and more about not allowing potential new board members to be part of the discussion. She believes the board should have delayed its vote until after next week's election. 

Jennettie Marshall, the other board member who voted no, also said she thinks the decision should have been postponed. 

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