Editor’s note: This is the first in an ongoing Southwest Ledger series examining how a sampling of Oklahoma municipalities reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic and how they are doing now, five months on.
OKLAHOMA CITY – Over the first eight weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it was here in Oklahoma, municipalities of varying sizes reacted in various ways after the World Health Organization (on March 11, 2020) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic; and President Donald J. Trump (on March 13, 2020) declared a National Emergency for the United States.
For the City of Guymon, a small, ethnically diverse city in the Oklahoma Panhandle, challenges related to the pandemic were faced and handled accordingly, most with success. The following information was gathered via the Ledger’s utilization of the Freedom of Information Act.
Two months after the initial call for a National Emergency, Guymon officials were finally taking the task of addressing the mounting virus crisis.
Guymon City Mayor Sean Livengood signed a Proclamation of State of Emergency for his city on May 14, 2020. In the proclamation, Livengood notes that in addition to the already announced State of Emergency, as announced by Gov. Kevin Stitt, would promote social distancing, limits on visits to bars and restaurants, and the closure of city-operated basketball courts, gyms, and outdoor exercise stations.
Scheduled events, such as Pioneer Days, were canceled (and later rescheduled for late August), while visits to Guymon’s Senior Citizens Center, Fairgrounds and Community Center, Sunset Lake, and Thompson Park remained open with a social distancing protocol in place.
Meanwhile, “(b)usinesses where persons gather for presentation or entertainment, such as movie and live theaters, bingo halls, sporting venues, and places of worship must maintain strict social distancing, CDC protocols for sanitizing and comply with standards, including:” staggered seating, groups of 10 or less, usage of face masks, as well as not allowing employees with a temperature of over 100.4 F to work.
The City of Guymon also provided a Spanish language version of the proclamation, as the population of Guymon is nearly 38 percent Hispanic.
Early on in the pandemic, top city officials were in constant communication. An early proclamation was issued in mid-March, as City Manager Joe Don Dunham shared with them the fact that as of March 18, 2020, there were 29 confirmed positive COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma, with three reported cases in Texas County.
At this same time in May, the Guymon City Council was addressing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) that provided funds to the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) for distribution as a 100 percent grant, with no matching funds required.
As of May 12, 2020, City Council Agenda Item commentary sheet noted, “ODOT has in turn allocated these funds to the individual systems for operations and equipment.
This expenditure will be a reimbursement grant, the City will need to expend the funds before we can receive the grant funds.”
Livengood and city officials felt that purchasing two new buses, to replace two older buses, would be the best use of the $286,360 they would receive through the program.
However, the Ledger recently learned that Guymon did not get those two buses, as of late August.
In a March 31, 2020 email sent by City Manager Dunham to other city officials regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of utilizing storm shelters in the midst of the crisis.
This email, one of the hundreds accessed via the Freedom of Information Act, reflects the mood and tone of city officials when faced with a crisis of unimagined proportions.
In Dunham’s email, he says that there were questions regarding the opening up of city-operated storm shelters.
“I cannot see how we can enforce a 6-foot separation and also ensure a 10 person or less gathering by opening the storm shelters during this Pandemic,” writes Dunham. “This message is consistent with Woods County Emergency Management recommendations as of March 30, 2020. That being said, this is also a matter of local control and you are the ones receiving the calls.”
Dunham continues, making his position clear that opening up the storm shelters could potentially open up the city to lawsuits.
“If we close the shelters and someone gets hurt because they cannot take shelter the City gets sued, we open the shelter and someone gets sick or gets hurt driving to a shelter we get sued. In general, I don’t feel community shelters are a good idea, I believe this to be a liability waiting to happen.”
Dunham concludes the email by telling the recipients that they should reply to the email only, “do not reply all as that could be misrepresented as an open meeting.”
City council member Larry Swager simply responds that the shelters should be opened only “if we have a tornado warning for the city.”
Councilman Sergio Alvidrez, who represents Guymon’s Ward 1, expressed his belief that not opening the shelters “is the right thing to do” and that leaving it up to a “Church or Establishment” to open up their basements to the public would be optimal because it would not be a liability for the city.
The day before, March 30, 2020, Guymon Fire Chief Grant Wadley wrote to all members of the fire department in an email that day under the subject line “Tornado Shelters during COVID-19.” Wadley stated his agreement with positions taken by the city on storm shelters by saying they would not be open to the public (What is the status now?) and that were Guymon under a tornado warning that residents could simply “seek below ground shelter elsewhere other than the ‘past’ designated shelters.” Or, simply shelter-in-place.
By May, reporters from the region were reaching out to officials in Guymon and Texas County, in hopes of interviewing officials about their low-reported COVID-19 numbers.
Several emails reveal that a New Mexico-based Reuters reporter named Andrew Hay reached out to Mayor Sean Livengood and talk to him about “how life is in the area of the country where there are no positive cases of coronavirus as of now.”
Meanwhile, a reporter for the Oklahoma City-based online newspaper NonDoc, one Andrea DenHoed, reached out to Sergio Alvidrez, the Guymon council member whose ward includes the Seaboard food processing plant. Alvidrez replied by writing, “The Seaboard Plant is in my ward and I don’t have a problem answering any questions that pertain to my ward and city.”
Alvidrez lets Durham know that NonDoc reached out to him and wanted to give Dunham a “heads up.” Dunham asks Alvidrez if he needs to respond and Alvidrez assures him that he can handle questions from the press.
On April 13, 2020, Seaboard Foods Human Resources Director Jennie Watkins wrote to city officials explaining that the company had addressed the fact that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19. Watkins wrote that “Following CDC guidelines, critical infrastructure workers may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.”
Watkins laid out the extra precautions being taken at the Guymon plant, including:
2. Regular monitoring
3. Mask availability
4. Social distancing
5. Disinfecting and cleaning workspaces
By May 11, 2020, Seaboard Foods was announcing that they were scheduling “plant-wide testing at the Guymon processing plant” that was to begin later that week.
That same day, in a letter to City Manager Dunham, Duke Sand, President, and CEO of Seaboard Foods, wrote a letter in which he described, in detail, the methods and procedures Seaboard would take to determine an employee’s health status in relation to COVID-19.
“The goal of our testing program is to provide employees the opportunity to determine their COVID-19 status, so they can better protect themselves, their families, co-workers, and friends.”
By the time Sand wrote this letter, of the 2,700 total Seaboard employees, 90 of the Guymon plant employees had confirmed cases of COVID-19. Another 116, Sand wrote, tested positive and since recovered.
Additionally, wrote Sand, “It will also help us understand how we as a community have been affected by the global pandemic, and the next steps we need to take together to slow the spread.
“The more information we have, the more we can do to prevent the spread of the virus in our community.”
Sand, based at their Shawnee Mission, Kansas, headquarters, wrote to reassure city officials that they were doing everything possible to slow and/or stop the spread of the virus while working hand-in-hand with the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the Texas County Public Health Department.
“Plant-wide testing is just another step in many that we’ve taken for the well-being of our employees. We’ve always taken great pride in our clean and well-run facilities and extensive biosecurity protocols, and we know this is important now more than ever. As part of our operations, we have robust anti-bacterial and anti-viral sanitization and sterilization protocols that occur daily. We have also implemented preventative measures and resources to help protect our employees who are working hard to continue providing food to the county, such as providing masks and requiring their use inside the plant and screening and temperature checks of anyone who enters the plant. We also made operations changes like staggering lunch shifts and breaks along with plexiglass barriers on tables in the cafeteria and additional seating areas, which are important to encourage social distancing in the plant. In addition, anti-viral fogging takes place regularly in operational and employee areas.”
That same day, May 11, 2020, City Manager Dunham gave city officials a rundown of the COVID-19 numbers pertaining to Guymon and Texas County.
“Woodward has 5 or 6 COVID-19 beds and they are currently all full with Guymon/Texas County patients.”
At that time, all Guymon COVID-19 patients were being sent to hospitals in Woodward and Enid, he noted.
He concluded by writing that as of May 11, Texas County was ranked number four in the state with 404 positive cases and four deaths. Guymon, meanwhile, was ranked number three in the state with 313 total cases, three deaths, and 121 recoveries.
May 11, again, was a very active day for communications related to COVID-19 in Guymon. Seaboard spokesperson David Eaheart wrote to Mayor Livengood about New Mexico-based Reuters reporter Andrew Hay coming to Guymon that Wednesday to follow up on his March report on Guymon and how cases went from zero to spiking in early May.
Seaboard, at this point, was feeling a bit nervous about continued newspaper articles on the struggles they faced at the Guymon plant.
Eaheart wrote, in part: “(Hay) is doing an article on the Guymon community and the spike in positive cases and of course what Seaboard Foods is doing, too. He requested access to the plant for photos about our practices, but we declined.”
Eaheart wrote that Seaboard President and CEO Duke Sand would do a phone interview with Hay and that they would, instead, send photos for Reuters to use with the story, rather than allowing a photographer access to the plant.
The following day, May 12, 2020, Mayor Livengood sent an email to Duke Sand, commending him on the efforts Seaboard had made “during this entire process.” Livengood said those efforts were “great” and that he had “learned a lot from this horrible situation our country and world are in.”
Concluded Livengood: “Though times are tough I know we will be much stronger when this is over.”
STATE OF EMERGENCY
Eventually, Mayor Livengood and the City of Guymon would declare a “State of Emergency” in late April, which included limited or no access to all city facilities; the suspension of disconnections due to non-payment; and other protocols to limit exposure.
Interestingly, section seven of the proclamation notes that “All citizens of Guymon are encouraged to educate themselves on the COVID-19 virus by visiting the Oklahoma State Department of Health” website, as well as that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is encouraged by the city in hopes for further educating the public on how to follow the guidelines of proper hygiene and social distancing “for their protection and the protection of others.”
OKLAHOMA PANHANDLE STATE UNIVERSITY
Amidst the pandemic, those early weeks were tell- ing in the growing concerns folks in higher education had in the spreading coronavirus.
On March 13, 2020, early in the alarm of the rapidly spreading pandemic, Oklahoma Panhandle State University President Dr. Tim Faltyn communicated via email with Dunham about his reservations about “going virtual” at the Goodwell, Oklahoma-based college.
Wrote Faltyn to Dunham: “There are a number of factors. I can’t tell how much of this is panic and how much of it is actual pandemic.”
Shortly thereafter, Faltyn made an official statement to students and faculty that the university would “move all face-to-face classes to virtual instruction effective immediately. This preventative measure will remain in place until April 6, 2020.”
At the end of the statement, Faltyn wrote: “This situation has galvanized my belief that we are better together than any one of us could be by ourselves. Even during this difficult time, it is important that we communicate and support each other as this situation is unique in modern history.”
PANHANDLE CITIZENS’ COMMUNICATIONS
Writing a letter to Mayor Livengood on April 13, 2020, Pastor Charlie Mendenhall of Victory Center Church wrote that while he was impressed with how city officials had “been challenged recently in navigating our city through uncharted waters in relationship to Covid-19,” the mandatory closing of restaurants and other businesses was beginning to take a toll on people’s finances.
“Disease and death will always be with us, and certainly our hearts and prayers go out to those who have lost family members through this. But in our attempt to save everyone from Covid-19, let it not become the death of family finances, city revenues, company profits, and the economy of our city.”
Mendenhall continued, writing, “You have done well, but it’s time to transition back to normal, allowing businesses to open again and our churches to meet together to pray for Guymon and its leaders, and give hope to our people.”
Mendenhall concluded with a quote echoing President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
The letter from the pastor was forwarded on to other city officials and Dunham, city manager, wrote to the city attorney, “In an effort to curb some of the uprising on the restaurant and church issue I have prepared the attached statement. Please let me know if you have any issues with it.”
At this time, in mid-April, a petition was being circulated among restaurants and bars in Guymon and neighboring Panhandle communities. One petition was forwarded to Councilman Sergio Alvidrez, from Refz Bar & Grill. They were seeking the ability to sell “sealed spirits from its original manufacture during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Beer and wine were allowed, but not spirits, as was the case in neighboring Texas.
Dunham, meanwhile, reiterated the executive orders from the office of Gov. Kevin Stitt, following national protocols, that “bars and restaurants are closed to ‘dine-in’ services, they can still serve their customers by providing a takeout, curbside, and delivery services.”
As for churches wanting to open, Dunham reminded people that “Social gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited. Business within a critical infrastructure sector, as more particularly described herein, shall take all reasonable steps necessary to comply with this Order and protect their employees, workers, and patrons.”
“Other than this the City of Guymon strongly recommends that people take the appropriate measures to personally protect themselves. This is a very serious virus and infection could happen before you are aware.”
Also, in May, the City of Guymon was offering a “COVID-19 Recovery Plan” which included suggestions as to how to help promote local, small businesses in order to “survive the coronavirus effect.”
1. Buy gift cards. This puts cash immediately into the business.
2. Shop local. If residents want local services after this crisis, they need to spend with local businesses today.
3. Order in. Get you small businesses that offer delivery listed on all our social platforms.
4. Tip more than usual. If you afford to be a bit more charitable, this is a time small businesses need it.
The city also circulated a survey inquiring from local businesses about the impact the pandemic had had on their business.
The City of Guymon also looked for other models from other similarly sized cities about the measures they were taking to reopen and return to some semblance of normalcy. City Manager Dunham found a document from the city of Spearfish, South Dakota, a city with a population of 10,494, compared to Guymon’s population of 11,442. Spearfish is 660 miles north of Guymon in South Dakota’s Black Hills region.
Dunham shared this information with Mayor Sean Livengood and the Spearfish document proved to be educational, informative, and easy-to-understand.
The annual Pioneer Days Festival, normally held each May in Guymon, but changed to the weekend of August 21 this year, did happen, albeit in a more manageable form, due to social distancing concerns.
Jada Breeden, spokeswoman for the Guymon Chamber of Commerce, told Southwest Ledger that Pioneer Days happened, albeit without the carnival. The rodeo and a parade were scheduled to proceed.
Asked about how Guymon has been doing this summer amidst the COVID-19 cases that have arisen throughout the state, she said some people do wear masks, still, but only at places like Walmart, where they are required.
“I think a lot of people are looking for a sense of normalcy. Now, at Pioneer Days people are not required to wear a mask, but if they feel more comfortable wearing one, they can certainly do that,” Breeden said, adding that when she goes out she rarely sees people wearing masks, the desire to “move on” from the COVID-19 crisis as being a key factor.
Mayor Livengood’s Declaration of Emergency from early May (Ordinance 865) caused some concern in the community. This included Livengood’s ability to “proclaim a state of emergency; defining mayor’s emergency powers; providing for a penalty; providing for severability; repealing all ordinances in conflict herewith; and declaring an emergency.”
The proclamation states that the Mayor’s Office prohibits everything from “the manufacture, transfer, use, possession or transportation of a Molotov cocktail or any other device, instrument or object designed to explode or produce uncontained combustion” to “the possession of firearms or any other deadly weapon by a person (other than a law enforcement officer) in a place other than that person’s place of residence or business.”
That last item caused real concern over 2nd Amendment rights.
A CPA in Guymon, Daniel V. Norris, emailed the Guymon City Council on May 12, 2020, with his concerns about Ordinance No. 864. Norris was concerned about the fact that the proposed ordinance was not online or “on the board in front of City Hall!”
Norris received a copy of the ordinance, faxed to him, following a request.
“We are in unprecedented times involving life and death; however, some of the proposed items in the ordinance are not there to protect our health against the COVID Virus. They appear to only serve to overreach the power of city government, and some of them are most likely covered in ordinances already on the state, city, or federal laws.
“The one glaring at me was Section II (a) 5 stating the possession of firearms (other than law enforcement) are only allowed in my home or my business. This is stepping on the fundamental rights of individuals. It serves no purpose to help curb the spread of the virus!!
“Section II (a) (1 and 2) appears to be of concern for the community health. The others 3 thru 8 do not appear to be of a nature to control or curb the spread of COVID 19!
“I want our community safe, and I know you all want the same.”
It has been nearly four months since that proclamation was approved. Southwest Ledger reached out to Mayor Sean Livengood and City Manager Joe Don Dunham to get their opinions on the crisis and how Guymon saw it through, despite a few bumps along the way.
Ledger: Just a couple of questions: First, when you realized the scope and seriousness of the COVID crisis this past spring, what were your biggest concerns and challenges as Guymon city manager?
JDD: “My biggest concern was how do we address the pandemic and how was I to know my recommendations would be in the best interest of Guymon. When the pandemic started for Guymon, I had been on the job only a few weeks and had not had the opportunity to become familiar with the citizens of Guymon. The COVID Pandemic is something no city manager, I am aware of, has faced and we were all learn how to address the issues we were faced with, so nobody knew what to expect. In situations like this, there will always be times you are second-guessing your decisions.”
Ledger: Second, how do you feel the response of Guymon’s citizenry was in light of the crisis?
JDD: Obviously, there will always be people that will not want to be told what to do or will not want to comply with the kind of directives which were given in this situation. But the majority of the citizens of Guymon realized the gravity of the situation and were compliant. The citizens of Guymon have a great attitude, have a tremendous work ethic, and have been a pleasure to work with.
“As they were given information and why the City Council was taking the actions they were taking the citizens understood. This was a difficult situation for all involved. Is there anything you wish had been handled differently when addressing the crisis?
“Hindsight is always 20/20, we can look back and see things which we wish we had done differently. But, for the most part, the things I wish I had done differently or acted on quicker are minor. The City Council and I had decided early on we would try to follow the State recommendations and the State’s guidance. I still believe this was and is the best course of action for Guymon.”
Ledger: And finally, how are things in Guymon today?
JDD: “For the most part, I think things are going good, but of course the last time I said this to a newspaper Guymon saw a huge surge in positive tests. Staff is watch the numbers closely and are in contact with the Health Department daily. As we foresaw, with the opening of school we have seen a slight increase in positive cases. The school has a mandatory mask policy and from what I’ve witnessed it is being complied with.”
Ledger: What are your COVID numbers this week?
JDD: “Our total positive case has been hovering around the 21 - 28 person mark. We quit looking at the numbers the State reported as positive because that number didn’t take into effect the number of people who had recovered. Staff felt the number of total actively positive cases was easier for the citizens of Guymon to understand.”
Ledger: Have they risen this month? Plateaued? Or receded?
JDD: “These numbers have stayed pretty consistent.”
Mayor Sean Livengood offered these answers to our questions.
Ledger: Going through the FOIA documents sent to the Ledger, following our request, I was impressed with how you and the council maintained a fairly solid, cohesive stance on how the city should respond to the COVID crisis. My first question is: When you realized the magnitude of the crisis facing your city, were you concerned that citizens would not follow your directives, (i.e. the Ordinance 865, which received criticism for allegedly stepping on 2nd Amendment rights?) What was your biggest concern beyond the health dangers faced by citizens?
Mayor Sean Livengood:
“The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a situation that anyone has faced before, we knew it wasn’t if the pandemic would hit Guymon it was more of when and how severe was it going to be. We wanted to be proactive and try our best to educate our citizens on guidelines and take guidance from state and local health department.
Ledger: Secondly, I want to know how you feel the city and the city council addressed the COVID crisis. Is there anything that you would have done differently? Anything you learned that has helped you improve and/ or adjust your leadership capabilities?
MSL: “I feel that as a city and a council we handled the situation appropriately, at the time we had our most cases which went on for about two months we were meeting weekly on Monday afternoons to discuss where we currently were sitting with cases and hospitalizations as a city. We wanted to base our decisions based on as accurate data that we could get our hands-on.
The biggest thing I learned during this COVID crisis is that make sure to ask a lot of questions and make the best decision that you feel fits to the situation that can make a positive impact moving forward.
Ledger: Third, with concerns over COVID spreading at Seaboard Foods, do you feel the company was forthright with you and city staff on addressing the full scope of the infection rate there? And how are things going at Seaboard today? Do Guymon officials and Seaboard representatives still have a positive and open line of communications?
MSL: “Seaboard was very easy to work with and get information when it came to city matters. Seaboard met with us multiple times during the crisis in Guymon and was very transparent on their situation and how there were handling the ongoing situation at the plant. Seaboard and the city continue a very positive and open line of communication today and work together very well.”
Ledger: And finally, how is Guymon doing today? Mask mandates seem to be working in many cities, including here in Oklahoma City. I spoke with someone in Guymon last week who told me very few citizens wear masks, outside of Walmart. Are people still taking precautions and wearing masks, or is the desire to ‘return to normal’ so strong that people often do not wear masks during their day-to-day activities in Guymon?
MSL: “Currently Guymon does not have a mask mandate. Now there are businesses that require people to wear masks in their business. When I go into those certain businesses I see people wearing masks.”