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Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum: Bad part of pandemic is yet to come, but there are three reasons for optimism

For me, the last three weeks are a blur. Each day, regardless of the day of the week, is the same.

I wake up in the morning and get on my phone — reaching out to learn as much as I can as quickly as I can, and then using that knowledge to make the kinds of decisions throughout each day that I never thought any mayor would have to make — and I do that until I go to sleep.

Every waking minute of the day there is one driving question going over and over through my head: Am I doing everything I can to protect Tulsans?

And then I wake up the next morning and the process starts again.

At one point this week, in the midst of that cycle, I had a brief moment to consider the larger picture.

I was standing in a room of our house, looking out the window while I was on a conference call, and I could see my 10-year-old daughter playing in our yard with the dog — carefree and happy, but without her classmates or her cousins or her friends. Alone.

And I thought to myself: I can’t believe she has to grow up in the middle of what we’re about to go through.

Because where we are today — this — is not the bad part.

Thousands of unemployed Tulsans, schools canceled, businesses closed or working remotely, hospital workers and first responders in a desperate search for personal protective equipment. All of this is only preparation for the bad part.

We know the virus is here, and it is spreading. It will continue to spread because no one is immune to it.

At some point in the weeks ahead, just based on the math of contagion, it will begin to snowball, and then the bad part will be here.

Will we have enough hospital beds? Enough ventilators? Will our medical professionals have the supplies they need to keep themselves healthy so they can continue serving others?

That is when all this talk about flattening the curve will quit being theoretical. Only then will we know if we did enough right now.

There are reasons for optimism.

First: We’ve been here before.

Generations of Tulsans have filled sand bags to hold back floodwaters from the homes of their neighbors.

We live in Tornado Alley, the most tornadic region of the entire world.

Our local economy is historically reliant on an industry famed for its booms and its busts.

Each of these challenges has been in its own way unique, and so is this one. But the frequency of dealing with them has forged a trait in our community that we always seem to be surprised by when it reveals itself: stoic resolve.

During the flooding and tornados that afflicted our community last year over a period of weeks, Tulsans went about their business with determination and creativity — preparing homes, helping neighbors move and communally shaming parents who thought it was a great idea to take their kids for a swim in floodwaters.

We focused on managing what was within our control, and we got through it as a community.

You see the same thing happening right now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the midst of all the life and death realities that this pandemic presents, Tulsans have not panicked. Well, except for the whole toilet paper thing — not sure what that is about. But other than that, we are yet again showing the same stoic resolve we always draw on in trying times.

The second reason for optimism is that we have independent local experts at the Tulsa Health Department and local leadership who will follow their guidance.

The Tulsa Health Department is an independent agency. It has its own source of funding, thanks to the citizens of Tulsa County, and its own board of directors.

This is important because Dr. Bruce Dart and his team are not beholden to any elected official. They can give their candid guidance, and they don’t have to care about anything other than the safety of Tulsa County residents.

Fortunately, local elected officials are heeding that advice. When Dr. Dart raised the urgency of social distancing to protect the capacity of our local health care system, city after city throughout the Tulsa metro made incredibly difficult but courageous decisions to close those venues presenting the greatest risk of rapid viral contagion.

We have independent experts, and they have broad support in their work to protect all of us.

The third reason for optimism as we approach the hard part of this event is that we are working together.

As mayor, I have a unique vantage point to see the way so many groups are setting aside parochialism to help one another.

The business community is banding together to identify protective equipment for our first responders and health care workers.

Nonprofit and governmental agencies are working together to protect homeless Tulsans.

Private sector labs and public universities are working to increase the availability of testing.

And every single Tulsan has a chance to contribute daily by doing three things: minimizing human-to-human contact to slow the spread of the virus; buying something from a local restaurant or business if you can afford it so we can lift up our local economy as it adapts; and taking a moment to reach out to others and lift their spirits — on the phone, online or even with holiday lights in your yard.

When we look to those countries and states that are further into this pandemic event than we are, we know a challenging time is ahead of us.

But Tulsans are prepared because we’ve been tested again and again throughout our history.

And we will handle this challenge the way we’ve handled all the rest: together. But this time, 6 feet apart.

G.T. Bynum is the mayor of Tulsa.

March 2020

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