It was business as usual this week in Watonga, a city of fewer than 3,000 residents known for its fall cheese festival.
If someone tests positive, “then we’ll decide if we’ll do anything,” Watonga Mayor Gary Olsen said. “We’ll probably follow the federal and state guidelines for closing restaurants and the one bar in town.”
In stark contrast to Oklahoma City – which restricted restaurants and closed bars, gyms and other businesses this week amid increasing concerns about the coronavirus – Olsen is waiting until the virus reaches Blaine County to take action. Watonga is the county seat.
Many rural communities across the state have been hesitant to implement restrictions or closures, especially on businesses, partly because the fast-spreading coronavirus has not yet reached their edges.
As of Monday, the State Department of Health had reported 1,327confirmed novel coronavirus cases in 58 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties. Most are in Oklahoma, Tulsa and Cleveland counties. The state has 51 confirmed deaths.
Most cities have suspended utility shut-offs as more residents are losing their jobs and will struggle to pay their bills. Some cities have closed or limited access to recreation centers, sports complexes, libraries and city halls. Few have closed or restricted businesses. Many are recommending that restaurants limit service to take-out and delivery only, but ultimately are leaving it up to business owners to do what they think is best.
In Henryetta, a city of 5,500 about 50 miles south of Tulsa, officials are reinforcing federal and state recommendations and encouraging residents to use caution when they’re out.
But Mayor Jennifer Munholland still thinks that “too much hype” is causing unnecessary panic. That’s why she refuses to order businesses to close and risk “unnecessarily bankrupting local businesses owners who can’t afford to close for two or three weeks.”
Munholland owns the Fountain View Nursing Home, which has been on lockdown since March 13. Munholland, who was on vacation in Branson, Missouri, until Saturday, said the precautions are necessary to protect residents whose age and health make them more vulnerable.
Dining rooms at the Classic Diner, Mona’s Rose of Sharon, Shoney’s restaurants and Rustler’s BBQ remained open this week but limited access to 10 customers at a time.
Stilwell Mayor Jean Ann Wright declared an emergency Tuesday for the small town along the Arkansas border. But she didn’t impose restrictions on businesses.
Somethin’ Sweet diner was packed during lunch Thursday, with locals pouring in as usual for the meatloaf dinner or guacamole cheeseburger special, according to owner Brenda Hale. Hale said she wasn’t considering closing her dining room.
“Everything’s good here,” Hale said before rushing off to tend to her customers.
Wright said many restaurants have switched to takeout or delivery options only, which is “the right thing to do.”
Two cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Arkansas near the Oklahoma border this week. As the virus creeps closer to her city, Wright said she will look to neighboring cities for guidance on tightening restrictions.
Wright said mixed messaging from federal and state officials makes it difficult for local leaders to take action. She cited Gov. Kevin Stitt’s posting on social media about eating at a crowded Oklahoma City restaurant the day before declaring a state of emergency.
“I feel that perhaps he is where Trump was for a while, not being terribly serious about things, and he’s starting to kick it into gear but not fast enough,” Wright said.
Stitt has stuck with a non-intervention approach although recommending Oklahomans follow CDC guidelines, such as avoiding groups larger than 10. In an interview with News on 6 in Tulsa Thursday, Stitt said, “I think Oklahomans are doing a great job of trying to flatten this curve,” adding, “Some of the mayors around the state are going a little extra and trying to close down certain things. That’s not my recommendation. My recommendation is to innovate.”
In the panhandle, Texas County Emergency Manager Harold Tyson said communities are “trying very hard” not to close businesses.
But as in other cities, he said all options remain on the table as the virus continues to spread across the state and decision-makers are thrust deeper into uncharted territory.
Three residents of Texas County have been tested for the coronavirus and all came back negative, Tyson said. But he was concerned that it took four days to get the results. He offered to drive to Oklahoma City to deliver the samples, but the health department’s protocol requires its staff pick up test samples.
Tyson said he is frustrated with the state health department because he can’t get the masks, gloves and gowns needed at local medical facilities, including Memorial Hospital of Texas County. The county-owned hospital in Guymon also serves surrounding counties.
“I can’t get any hand sanitizer in this county. I can’t even get the ingredients to make hand sanitizer,” Tyson said.
He is in communication with counterparts in neighboring Cimarron, Beaver, Harper and Ellis counties.
“We’re really, really frustrated out in the rural areas not getting any help or equipment,” Tyson said. “We all feel the same.”
In Fairview, a city of about 2,600 located 100 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, City Manager Jerry Eubanks said the reaction of residents to the coronavirus ranges from nonchalance to doomsday.
“There’s more fear out there than what people think,” Eubanks said. “We’ve told our citizens, ‘Treat it like you have it.’”
Thirty-five miles southwest of Norman, where Mayor Breea Clark issued the state’s first state-of-emergency order on March 13, the city of Lindsay “has no plans for a mandatory closure of any businesses,” despite two confirmed cases in Garvin County, according to a city Facebook post.
The post on Thursday encouraged citizens to practice social distancing and avoid gatherings of 10 or more. But it says that city elections, commissions and boards will continue as scheduled.
Altus, a city of 19,000 in far southwest Oklahoma, put an emergency order in place Monday and, three days later, extended restrictions on gatherings and businesses. That was one week after a case of coronavirus was confirmed in Jackson County.
The city now has some of the strictest mandates in the state: Non-essential businesses and churches must limit gatherings to 50 people, bars are closed, and restaurants can only serve takeout. Non-essential businesses also must be closed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and all businesses must devote the first hour of the business day only to serving seniors and people whose health is compromised.
“Six months from now we don’t mind being accused of overreacting, but we don’t want to be accused of being nonresponsive,” City Manager Gary Jones said.
Health officials say that as more Oklahomans are tested for COVID-19, the number of confirmed cases is likely to rise and spread. That could trigger more stringent mandates in places where the current watchwords are “hands off.”