Police in some of Oklahoma’s largest cities are electing to use a softer touch, rather than aggressive enforcement, with state and local business restrictions as Oklahoma gradually reopens amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scores of restaurants, retailers and offices have reopened their doors – or at least partially returned to pre-pandemic life – since Gov. Kevin Stitt and many cities or counties eased stay-at-home restrictions on May 1. More orders are set to topple later this week if the state sees enough encouraging data to enter the second reopening phase.
But current state and local orders or proclamations, which carry the weight of state laws or local ordinances, still spell out mandates for businesses to safely return to operations. They are paired with guidelines, such as urging employees to wear masks when interacting with customers, that aren’t enforceable unless local officials require more restrictions than what Stitt has ordered.
Among the current mandates are ones requiring dining, entertainment, gyms and places of worship to meet social distancing and sanitation protocols. recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Restaurants across the state, for example, must space tables six feet apart, increase cleaning of frequently touched surfaces and make hand sanitizer bottles available to customers, according to an Oklahoma State Department of Health document. These aren’t scheduled to go away until phase 3 starts on June 1, depending on infection trends.
Oklahoma Watch requested details on COVID-19 related complaints and violations from local police, who are charged with enforcing the state and local requirements, in the state’s 10 largest cities.
Of the seven that responded, all said they are not proactively checking for violations and instead only respond to complaints. Police in Enid, Edmond and Midwest City did not immediately respond to questions Monday.
Each of the police departments that responded also said they either are not tracking the number of COVID-19 related calls and violations or have issued a relatively small number of violations.
“We are not doing any proactive enforcement on this,” said Tulsa Police Department Lt. Richard Meulenberg. “If anything, we are just responding to calls from citizens who want us to let us know what is going on.”
Meulenberg said the department doesn’t track the number of calls it has received from the public. But he said it hasn’t been a lot of calls “by any stretch of imagination.” And he said the number of complaints that constitute a misdemeanor violation has been less than two dozen since the pandemic began.
This comes after many residents across Oklahoma have complained on social media about a lax attitude toward wearing masks and social distancing – actions that they say endanger the wider population and increase the risk of another wave of coronavirus infections and deaths.
There have been reports of crowded restaurants and food service workers not wearing masks or gloves, inside or at drive-thru windows.
In one highly publicized incident in Oklahoma City last week, several people called the police to complain about large crowds gathering in the outside area at Kong’s Tavern, a bar and restaurant in the city’s Midtown district, during a Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Upon arriving, Oklahoma City police found that the “outside patio was full of people,” according to a police report. But no citations were issued after officers found the restaurant was following proper practices inside.
Several people also told Oklahoma Watch they have seen retail workers wearing masks incorrectly, such as exposing their nose or pulling it off their faces to talk with customers
Education Over Enforcement
Oklahoma City Police Department spokesman Capt. Larry Withrow said punishing businesses is not one of its top priorities right now.
Instead, he said, the typical protocol for most officers is to first inform a business of the current restriction and give a warning before the business is cited. The city also isn’t tracking reopening complaints or citations.
“Our goal is voluntary compliance,” Withrow said. “Taking enforcement action would be a last resort.”
This approach largely tracks with advice that Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter issued for law enforcement when Stitt first ordered closures in March.
“While a violation of an executive order can be a misdemeanor, law enforcement officers are counseled to inform and persuade to effect compliance when confronted with violations, emphasizing the gravity of the ongoing public health emergency we are experiencing,” Hunter said.
Among the cities contacted, Norman was only large city keeping a count of its reopening complaints and violations.
Sarah Jensen, a spokeswoman for the Norman Police Department, said police officers had responded to 208 calls regarding compliance violations between March 25 and last Friday. Only 21 came during the first week after restrictions were relaxed on May 1.
Of the 208 calls, officers determined no violations existed for nearly half the complaints; 24 led to a verbal warning and five led to a citation.
A violation can be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $750 and 60 days in jail.
For the five violations, all given before May 1, two went to a Mitsubishi car dealership and two were given to a pair of vape shops (Vapor World and Velocity Vapor) when they remained open despite being labeled nonessential businesses.
The home improvement store Lowe’s was cited for being over capacity and not following social distancing practices.
All enforcement of the mayor’s proclamations started with education, then a warning, and a citation as a last result, Jensen said.
When Localities Add Restrictions
In addition to the restrictions in Stitt’s executive order, localities are allowed to impose more restrictive rules.
Norman Mayor Breea Clark issued one of the most cautious reopening plans of any city.
Originally, places of worship were not allowed to reopen at the beginning of the month. At the urging of state and federal officials, including Hunter, Clark amended the order Friday to allow places of worship to open but strongly discouraged them from holding in-person services.
Clark had been sued earlier by salon owners who wanted to open in the first phase. A county judge sided with salon owners and they were allowed to open, although the case is now headed for federal court.
Norman’s rules will again clash with the state’s reopening plan this Friday, when bars are allowed to operate. Under Norman’s order, bars can reopen starting May 29.
Stillwater also garnered national attention recently after residents pushed back against an ordinance requiring face masks in public.
Retailers attempting to enforce the requirement saw the brunt of the backlash, and after customers threatened Walmart workers, the city rescinded the policy. It’s now strongly recommended but not required.
Businesses can require masks and ask noncompliant customers to leave; if they refuse, police would respond like any other trespassing complaint, said Stillwater Police Capt. Kyle Gibbs.
Residents are restricted from gathering in groups of 10 or more people and restaurants are required to operate at no more than 50% capacity. But Gibbs said police are not out actively looking for violations.
“We have not issued any citations at this point and we hope we don’t have to,” he said.
Lawton is another city requiring more compliance than found in Stitt’s executive order.
Businesses there are required to post a sign about social distancing and to have a sneeze guard installed at the cash register. Employers must make masks available to all employees and are “advised” to screen staff for COVID-19 symptoms prior to their shift. Gas stations are additionally required to provide sanitation wipes or paper towels at pumps.
Lawton police on Friday went around to local businesses to distribute copies of the city ordinances and details of the restrictions, said Sgt. Timothy Jenkins. They plan to return this Friday to make sure all are in compliance.
“We’re giving them time, a grace period, to get in compliance,” he said.
Jenkins added that the department isn’t tracking calls and he didn’t recall any citations being issued.
Moore and Broken Arrow also aren’t tracking reopening complaints or citations. But the two cities, whose restrictions have largely mirrored those of Stitt’s executive order, haven’t seen an explosion of conflict.
Broken Arrow spokesman Chris Walker said police received some calls shortly after the state initially required that most businesses close. But aside from a select number of calls related to people not social distancing and businesses that were supposed to close but hadn’t, they haven’t seen an influx.
“We didn’t get that many,” he said. “I don’t think we gave out any citations.”