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Legislature approves open meeting changes amid outbreak

March 17, 2020 GMT
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Michael Fowler wears a face mask while waiting for a Tulsa Transit bus at the Denver Avenue Station Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Fowler had the flu recently and said he really doesn't want to get sick again. He wants to be ready and ward off the coronavirus. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)
1 of 4
Michael Fowler wears a face mask while waiting for a Tulsa Transit bus at the Denver Avenue Station Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Fowler had the flu recently and said he really doesn't want to get sick again. He wants to be ready and ward off the coronavirus. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma Legislature approved sweeping changes to the state’s Open Meeting Act on Tuesday to allow government bodies to meet via teleconference, a move that was in response to the coronavirus outbreak and alarmed open government advocates who worried the changes were too extreme.

Shorty after the Senate approved the bill, senators and their staff were asked to self-quarantine in their offices after learning a Senate staffer had tested positive for the coronavirus.

The bill is aimed at allowing government to continue to function while complying with recommendations of health officials for social distancing to prevent further spread of the virus, said Sen. Brent Howard, a Republican from Altus who wrote the Senate bill.

After open government advocates raised concerns the changes would apply for a full year, the House passed a separate bill that would allow the changes through Nov. 15 and would end if the current state of emergency is lifted.

“I think the fact that it’s valid for a full year just seems like a little too much,” said Andy Moore, director of Freedom of Information Oklahoma.

The House bill also included a requirement that meetings be recorded, a change open government advocates had sought.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 17 positive cases of the virus that causes COVID-19 as of Tuesday morning.

The vast majority of people who contract the virus recover within weeks. It causes only mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but it can lead to more severe illness, including pneumonia, for some patients, especially older adults and people with preexisting health problems.

Meanwhile, bars, restaurants and other business in Oklahoma’s largest cities are being ordered closed by the city’s mayors in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt both ordered the immediate shutdown of bars, while restaurants can serve only take-out orders. Similar measures were also imposed in Stillwater and Norman, including orders that theaters, gyms and amusement facilities must also close.

Gov. Kevin Stitt declared a statewide emergency Sunday, and schools were shut down Monday until April 6. Tribal leaders have also closed casinos. Officials with the Remington Park horse track in Oklahoma City said it was closing to the general public and races would be held without spectators.

The archbishop of Oklahoma City announced Tuesday that all public masses and liturgies at Catholic churches in the archdiocese of Oklahoma City would be canceled through Easter Sunday, April 12.

Stitt also issued new executive orders on Tuesday that would ease some regulations on health care workers and truck drivers and recommend that Oklahomans follow the latest recommendations from federal health officials, including avoiding gatherings of 10 or more people.

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Associated Press reporter Ken Miller in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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