(Deposit Photos)

With state leaders unwilling to mandate that masks be worn in crowded public spaces, Oklahoma businesses, like others around the country, are left to enact their own policies for confronting the global pandemic while trying to keep their employees safe.

“It’s a fine balance between protecting your workers and maybe alienating yourself from your customers,” said Allen Hutson, a director with the Oklahoma City-based Crowe & Dunlevy law firm. “The customer issue is really a difficult one for employers because they’ve got businesses to run and this is a very divisive topic. You’ve got folks on both ends of the spectrum: They either think that cloth face coverings are great and everybody should be doing it or they think it’s just a bunch of hooey and nobody should be doing it. So it’s just a tough situation.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has continued to update its guidance regarding what is expected of employers to protect their employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. OSHA is not requiring employers to mandate facial coverings, but employers are allowed to make the decision to require workers to wear facial coverings, particularly to address the risk of spreading COVID-19 among co-workers. To protect employees and customers from members of the public who might carry the disease, employers may put in place plastic barriers and encourage proper social distancing with signage and floor markers to mark where customers may stand while in line to maintain a distance of 6 feet.

“OSHA hasn’t gone so far as to require even employees to wear cloth face coverings; they certainly haven’t opined on what an employer should do with respect to members of the public,” said Hutson.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott resisted calls for a statewide requirement that people wear masks in public places, but praised a county judge’s order putting the responsibility on local businesses. In an interview with a local television station, Abbott said government cannot require individuals to wear face masks, but local governments can require stores and businesses to require them. The mayors of several Texas cities where cases of COVID-19 have spiked in recent days, including Austin, have since implemented ordinances requiring businesses to mandate face coverings in public places. The ordinances give local businesses the legal backing to enforce mask requirements within their workplaces.

Similar powers are unlikely to be granted to municipalities in Oklahoma. Gov. Kevin Stitt has repeatedly stated that he trusts Oklahomans to make good decisions and will not issue a mandate for citizens to wear facial coverings. While criticizing Stitt’s response to COVID-19 during a press conference on June 24, Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, minority leader in the state House of Representatives, stopped short of asking the governor to grant local governments the power to enact mask mandates.

“We know that mandates aren’t working very well in many places, and I don’t think that we’re at that time yet,” said Virgin.

Local leaders in Stillwater and Guthrie reversed course after facing violent threats from members of the public due to mask mandates included in ordinances passed at the height of April’s stay-at-home orders.

While the mayors of Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Norman issued ordinances in April and May to either close or strictly regulate specific businesses that posed a high risk of spreading COVID-19, none of those cities went so far as to mandate that masks be worn.

“There is no way to enforce that, and we never had that in any of our previous phases,” said Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt at a press conference held June 23. Though the press briefing was held by teleconference, the mayor donned a mask as he stood near other officials speaking at the event. “On the issue of masks, I’m going to continue to lead by example.”

Oklahoma State Medical Association President George Monks issued a statement June 25, following the state’s fourth-highest rise in positive cases over a 24-hour period, urging Gov. Stitt and the Oklahoma State Department of Health to “enhance their call of robust safety guidelines for Oklahoma businesses and public spaces that require employees and customers to wear masks around others.”

Monks said early victories in the battle against COVID-19 are being “erased by the growing number of large events coupled with a decreasing number of people who follow CDC guidelines,” and that too many people are taking an “it’s not my problem” approach to the virus.