MUSKOGEE, Okla. — Muskogee County residents could face a new reality as local officials intensified their efforts to curb community spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
City and county officials agreed on Monday to create a joint task force for the purpose of studying ways to combat a pandemic, the scope of which largely is unknown due to a lack of testing. City councilors in the interim amended a disaster declaration approved Thursday to include mandatory closure or restrictions on businesses that attract large groups of people — restaurants, bars, fitness centers, theaters, skating rinks, bowling alleys and other indoor entertainment venues — for an indefinite period.
The citywide restrictions, which could be expanded this week after the joint task force meets this week, prohibits on-site consumption of food and beverages at restaurants, cafes and food courts. It also requires the closure of bars, clubs and taverns that offer no food service.
City Attorney Roy Tucker said bars, clubs, taverns and similar businesses that offer food services may offer both food and beverages for delivery and carry-out dining delivered at the curb or drive-through window. The ABLE Commission waived the prohibition against selling alcoholic beverages for off-site consumption by establishments that also sell food during the statewide response to COVID-19 pandemic.
Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge also urged county commissioners and city councilors to consider issuing a countywide order that would require residents to shelter in place. Ward II Councilor Alex Reynolds said such an order should include additional restrictions on businesses such as barber shops, salons and massage parlors.
Loge won support for his recommendation Monday morning as commissioners discussed additional restrictions on access to the Muskogee County Courthouse and County Services Building. Commissioners and other county officials, however, wanted some buy-in by city officials to ensure the desired results would be produced.
City councilors expressed more reluctance when Loge made a similar pitch Monday night.
"I wish the governor would do this — I wish the president would — I just don't think they would, and I think we need to," Loge said. "I know that's drastic, but ... this is either going to devastate us or we're going to devastate it — I don't think there is an in between."
Loge, who has implemented a three-team policy at his office to limit public exposure for his employees, said exceptions would be made for residents seeking essential services or goods. Buying groceries, seeking medical help, accessing government services, and engaging in activities required by employment would be some of the things excepted from any proposed shelter-in-place order.
Loge's recommendation was made after news surfaced this weekend about the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Muskogee County, a second coronavirus-linked death was reported in the state, and Gov. Kevin Stitt amended his disaster declaration. It came on the heels of an announcement by District Judge Bret Smith that greater restrictions would be imposed on access to the courthouse.
In a second administrative order issued during the span of a week, the local judiciary continued "all nonessential matters ... until further notice." Lawyers were advised to confer with opposing counsel to set new dates after coordinating with presiding judges.
"In light of recent development in the COVID-19 pandemic, the following measures are being implemented immediately," Smith said. "The goal is to continue a functioning court system in a safe environment for all persons."
The order restricts entry to the courthouse to "essential personnel," like employees of district attorney, court clerk, judges, law enforcers and emergency management services. Public access will be limited to those involved with essential matters, which generally are those considered "an emergency" or "urgent," and members of the press.
Court Clerk Paula Sexton said documents may be filed by email, regular mail or left in an outside drop box by the front door designated for filings. Parties are encouraged to conduct business by teleconferencing.
Ward III Councilor Ivory Vann, who proposed additional restrictions on certain businesses, said many people ignored recommendations included in the city's initial emergency declaration. Vann said he has witnessed groups much larger than 10 people eating at restaurants and gathering at bars since the emergency declaration issued.
"People were carrying on like nothing is happening," said Vann, who wore personal protective equipment while attending the Muskogee City Council meeting. "This is a disaster for the world ... this needs to be put in place."
Loge said he recognizes the costs associated with orders, but he assured those with concerns that he was "not here to take away freedoms." Loge said his only concern is limiting the potential for further spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19.
While his proposal attracted four naysayers at the city, two of those — after further reflection — said they supported the formation of the joint task force and possibly additional restrictions.
The task force is expected to meet privately on Tuesday. It is expected to make its recommendations later this week during a joint session of the Muskogee City Council and Muskogee County Board of Commissioners.
City of Muskogee emergency declaration amendments
An emergency declaration adopted Thursday by Muskogee City Council was amended Monday, placing additional restrictions on certain businesses that cater to large groups of people. The expanded restrictions will take effect at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and will continue until further action by councilors. The restrictions include the following:
• Restaurants, food courts, cafes, and other places of public accommodation offering food and beverage shall be closed for dine-in customers and for on-premises consumption. Curbside, drive-through, takeout and delivery services are permitted, as are institutional and in-house food cafeterias that serve residents, employees or clients of businesses.
• Bars, taverns, brew pubs, breweries, tasting rooms, clubs and all other areas of public accommodation offering alcoholic beverages for on-premises consumption shall be closed. Such establishments within this category that also have food services may operate for curbside pickup or delivery in accordance with ABLE Commission rules.
• Gymnasiums, fitness centers, recreation centers and indoor sports facilities shall be closed.
• Theaters, cinemas, indoor and outdoor performances venues and museums shall be closed.
• Bingo halls, bowling alleys, skating rinks, and other similar recreational or entertainment facilities shall be closed.