County commissioners suggest masks in buildings

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Osage County commissioners voted Aug. 9 to keep the county courthouse and other county buildings open to the public and suggest that visitors wear protective masks.

The commissioners agreed that the county will supply masks for visitors to its buildings who would like to wear them.

The measure that passed was a mask suggestion, not a mandate.

District 3 Commissioner Darren McKinney, chairman of the county board, said he had received word that 60 additional cases of COVID-19 had been identified in the county in the previous week.

The county Health Department informed the commissioners that there had been 170 active COVID-19 cases in Osage County at the end of that week, about 70 of them in the Skiatook area. The resurgence of the virus has been linked to the emergence of a new strain, referred to as the Delta variant.

The commissioners did not take any formal action to prevent other county elected officials from formulating and enacting regulations intended to provide protection from COVID-19. The commissioners have previously encouraged other county officials to take responsibility for making rules to make their offices safer for employees and visitors.

There was, however, controversy regarding the decision Aug. 6 of County Clerk Robin Slack, County Assessor Ed Quinton Jr. and County Treasurer Sally Hulse to change their approach to providing service to the public and other county government staff members.

Slack, Quinton and Hulse had decided to keep visitors out of their offices and provide service to them at the door. They reportedly made the decision because of a scare related to a COVID-19-infected person or persons having visited one or more county government operations.

Their decision prompted a communication Friday, Aug. 6, by the District Attorney's Office, raising legal concerns and asserting that without an emergency declaration from Gov. Kevin Stitt, "it is your duty to keep your offices open to the public and for the County Clerk to post the hours so the public will know when their needs will be served."

Assistant District Attorney Ashley Kane on Aug. 9 said there was no official state of emergency. She emphasized the need for transparency with the public about safety measures that county government officials may seek to implement, to make sure county residents know what the safety plan is. She noted that "when people see that word 'closed,' they freak out."

District 1 Commissioner Randall Jones also emphasized that Stitt has not declared an emergency.

"We have the constitution to follow," Jones said.

Stitt has indicated he will not declare a state of emergency, in spite of the resumed spread of COVID-19 and increasing case numbers.

Quinton agreed with Kane that the intention to keep visitors out of his office, as well as the offices of the county clerk and the treasurer, had not been adequately communicated. Quinton pledged to work to address that problem. The Assessor's Office is currently housed in the county's records building because of a remodeling project that affects its normal location in the courthouse.

Slack also voiced an interest in finding the best possible approach to keeping people safe and providing service to the public.

"We're just trying to find the best way to do it while still serving all the customers," Slack said. Later that day, she told the Journal-Capital that efforts were continuing to limit access to her office, the Treasurer's office and the Assessor's office, while still responding to public requests for service.

"We're still trying to, but there's a lot of pushback on it," Slack said. "It's not a smooth process yet."

McKinney aired his frustration that there appeared to have been a lack of communication between officials who decided to close their offices to visitors and the commissioners.

Hulse replied that the decision had only been made on Friday, in response to a situation that involved potential exposure to an active case of COVID-19.

Quinton, who voiced anxiety about the greater threat that the Delta variant appears to pose to children, also vented frustration with complaints about whether the decision to restrict public access to his and other offices had been communicated sufficiently ahead of time.

"Why do I have to call you? You don't call me," Quinton said to McKinney at one point. Quinton said that he, Slack and Hulse observed a COVID-19 threat and they took action.

"Our offices are open eight hours a day, with our employees," Quinton said, adding that county records are available to citizens who want them.

Sheriff Eddie Virden said he would support whatever decisions his fellow county officials made, and he said that he could sympathize with arguments from differing sides, but Virden also made comments at more than one point in the discussion that indicated a sort of fatalistic approach to COVID-19.

"My opinion is that I don't think it really matters what precautions we take. We're all going to face this disease," said Virden, who has had COVID-19. "At some point we're going to have to accept it as a part of life."

Virden's approach brought him into momentary conflict with Jerry Butterbaugh, who serves on the board of the Osage County Industrial Trust Authority. Butterbaugh emphasized the number of deaths caused in Oklahoma and throughout the nation by COVID-19 infections. Butterbaugh argued that states where residents have been quicker to get vaccinated, and where officials have taken a more aggressive anti-COVID approach, have done better.

Virden expressed a willingness to dispute with Butterbaugh what sorts of statements could be characterized as "facts" about the COVID-19 crisis, and Butterbaugh pointedly asked the sheriff, "Are you a doctor?"

Brady Jones, who is in the bail bond business, also contributed to the discussion, cautioning county officials that it is understandable they want to protect people against COVID-19, but they need to remember that it is imperative to offer service to the public.

"Folks, we've got a public out there that needs service," Jones said.

By the end of the day Aug. 9, Slack said she and Quinton had revised their decision slightly, agreeing to have one customer at a time inside their offices.