ENID, Okla. — City managers said many Oklahoma cities still are recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic just as the virus appears to be rounding another corner in the state.
Managers of dozens of municipalities visiting Enid for the week spent Thursday morning reflecting on “the good, the bad and the ugly” from the last year and a half of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The ugly, session facilitator Steve Whitlock said, is people dying.
“And I don’t think that portion of it’s over,” he said from the front of the Grand Ballroom in Stride Bank Center. “We want to be sure we reach out to our neighbors … reach out to our colleagues. We’ll get through this.”
At the same time, Whitlock and other city managers said the pandemic has become widely politicized, exacerbated both by a sudden public interest and access in city business and fatigue from the initial shutdown wave in spring 2020.
“Our citizens are willing to do what it takes — for a certain point of time,” Lawton City Manager Michael Cleghorn said. “They want a definite date, and you can’t give them a definite date sometimes.
“And I think right now with the delta variant coming along, a lot of people are like, ‘I’m done. I’m not doing it. I’m not participating, don’t talk to me about masks’ … they don’t care.”
On Wednesday, the state reported more than 1,200 new COVID cases for the first time in months.
Over 40% of the state’s counties have now returned to alert levels reporting a weekly average of more than 14.29 daily new cases per 100,000 population, figures climbing since the beginning of July, according to the state Department of Health.
Simultaneously, the vaccination rates have stagnated at around 40% across Oklahoma for both initial and complete doses.
When the pandemic began in Oklahoma over a year ago, Cleghorn said it was a time for cities to learn from each other, such as sharing emergency proclamations and mask mandates.
“It was all going back and forth,” he said. “I want to at least pat everyone here on the back for cooperating in such a manner because it made it easy because we were sharing such unknowns.”
City employees, however, had to become “essential workers,” many unable to work from home or away from the office as cities declared mass shutdowns, Cleghorn said. Officials also had to learn to use virtual meeting technology such as Zoom to conduct public meetings.
While only a handful Thursday said their cities’ sales tax revenues didn’t decline during the pandemic, several managers have reported new hiring problems, especially smaller cities that Whitlock said were “ill-equipped” to handle suddenly new technology and remain open for business to the public.
One manager said 60% of his city staff were out at one time either sick with COVID or quarantining from exposure.
Guymon City Manager Joe Don Dunham said three city employees died of COVID, so the problem became twofold — grieving their loss while also struggling to replace them with few applicants.
Dunham said cities should try to reduce the number of support staff going out to work together on a job site.
“We’ve got to start to do things … to automate as much as we can,” he said.
“You wouldn’t have thought about that two years ago,” Whitlock told Dunham, to which he replied, “No, I wouldn’t have.”