“Livin’ on Tulsa time,” the fan-favorite lyric from the classic 1978 song “Tulsa Time,” has taken on new meaning for Oklahoma’s second largest city, as it struggles to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. The song’s tale of grand dreams leading to sad disappointment is similar in some ways to how Tulsans are responding to the outbreak of the virus now in their midst – responsible decisions contending with rebellious defiance.
Tulsa’s elected leadership has consistently been several beats ahead of the state’s governor, Kevin Stitt, a Republican who took office in 2019. In what may go down as one of the worst-timed announcements in local memory, Stitt released his Medicaid expansion plan in mid-March – just after the pandemic’s scope was becoming apparent. It was a waiver request that sought to impose work requirements or community engagement obligations on low-income Oklahomans, who would also have to pay monthly premiums to be included. How’s that for being out of tune and touch? Sort of like telling passengers on the Titanic that the lifeboats are reserved for people who can swim.
That wasn’t the only Stitt stumble. In a since-deleted, mid-March tweet, the governor posed with his children eating in a crowded restaurant; he encouraged other Oklahomans to do the same.
Days later, Stitt announced he was not going to tell local governments to put restrictions on businesses. “I don’t think that is the government’s job,” he said. That thought didn’t last long. On March 24, as Oklahoma’s cases began to soar, Stitt issued a “safer at home” order requiring “vulnerable populations” to stay at home until April 30. He also restricted gatherings of ten or more people, ordered a 14-day suspension of elective surgeries, and mandated nonessential businesses to close for 21 days in counties with confirmed cases. On March 28, he put a moratorium on out-of-state travel paid by the state.
Despite pleas from medical professionals, Stitt has refused so far to issue a statewide stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order. As a result, although over half of the governors had issued such mandates as of March 29, Oklahoma was not among them, despite recording 16 COVID-19 deaths and 429 cases by that same date.
By contrast, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum has shown more decisive leadership, aided by Dr. Bruce Dart, the indefatigable director of the Tulsa Health Department. As early as March 16, Bynum restricted public gatherings of 50 people or more in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease. On March 17, he ordered all bars closed and restricted restaurants to take-out and delivery services only. On the 24th, he issued a new executive order, prohibiting gatherings of more more than 10 persons. He has held numerous press conferences to update the public about the virus, and he hosted a virtual community forum with the former president of the University of Tulsa, now a professor of community medicine and psychiatry at the University.
On March 28, Bynum issued a shelter-in-place order for the city effective through April 16 that applied to all citizens. Bynum promised it would be enforced by police, adding, “I want to be clear that this is not a recommendation.” In imposing the order, he joined the majors of Oklahoma City and Norman who had announced similar mandates. As of March 29, Tulsa County had reported 61 COVID-19 cases and three deaths.
For their part, Tulsans have mostly honored the restrictions. The city’s vibrant music scene is silenced. Some restaurants remain open, but only for carry-out orders. The casinos are closed. The University of Tulsa will offer only virtual classes for the remainder of the spring semester; ditto for Oral Roberts University. All Oklahoma public schools are closed till the end of the school year and will rely on distance learning. Hospitals are bracing for what’s to come, and adequate testing is still not available.
Traffic on the streets is noticeably lighter. It seems more quiet.
The area’s one remaining drive-in theater planned to host Sunday church services, but that idea had to be scrapped after the mayor’s stay-at-home order. No communion in the car.
A Tulsa Area COVID-19 Response Fund has been established to help meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens, and the city’s extensive philanthropic resources are regularly being donated to good causes.
Initially, yellow tape cut off access to public playgrounds. Now, swings and other equipment have been removed altogether. Gradually, the controls on movements and gatherings are being tightened.
At first, public golf courses were to be closed, a decision that was reversed for some of them after it was concluded that outside exercise was desirable as long as people kept six feet apart. My regular foursome played through; given how often we spray shots all over the course, maintaining the necessary distance was never a problem.
Nonetheless, acts of rule-bending or open defiance have occurred. Some of the problem may be due to the patchwork of decisions by officials in Tulsa’s many surrounding suburbs, which have their own municipal authority and have not always been in step with Tulsa’s actions.
More often the difficulty involves individuals deciding the rules don’t apply to them. A local barber announced he would keep his shop open, despite the statewide decree that nonessential businesses be closed. His rationale: “Our clients are still requesting, which (makes it) evident that we are a necessity. We are an essential business.” He later relented and closed his shop.
An auto auction was held, a crowd gathered and someone called in a complaint. The owner was ready with his defense: when you are buying a used car, you have to “test drive it and pop the hood and make sure it’s a good car. Otherwise, you get stuck with a bunch of lemons.” Also, patrons had to have their temperatures taken before entering. Apparently, asymptomatic carriers aren’t contagious while buying old Buicks.
And finally, two bars have already been cited for violating the mayor’s order. In what will surely become the fodder for future lore, one was hosting a drag queen party. According to news accounts, after police officers knocked at the entrance, no one opened it, but the music was turned down. Then, “A few minutes later the door opened. Drag queens came out quick-stepping to their cars.” They were leavin’ on Tulsa time.