Bar Owners, Health Officials Clash In Lawsuit Over Stitt’s Executive Order

Friday, January 8th 2021, 10:15 pm


State health officials testified in court on Friday to defend an executive order that prohibits bars and restaurants from serving food and drinks in-person after 11 p.m. A group of business owners filed a lawsuit last month in an attempt to throw out the order. 

Three bar owners testified under oath the order puts their business in jeopardy. 

“It could be the end of a bar that’s been open since 1947,” said James Maxwell, the owner of the Friendly Tavern in Noble. He said the watering hole collects up to 40% of its revenue from sales after 11 p.m. on weekends. 

Attorney Frank Urbanic argued on behalf of the businesses that Gov. Kevin Stitt does not have the authority to impose the order and the ABLE Commission can’t legally enforce it. 

Assistant Solicitor General Randall Yates called three witnesses on behalf of the state: Health Commissioner Lance Frye, Oklahoma Chief Operating Officer John Budd, and Integris Health Chief Medical Officer Julie Watson. 

Yates said Stitt’s authority to issue the executive order exists temporarily because of the ongoing public health emergency caused by COVID-19. 

“Instead of closures, we’re limiting bars,” said Frye when asked what mitigation efforts the state considered. “We looked at everything.” 

Frye said focusing on bars and restaurants was considered the most effective option to slow the spread of COVID-19 compared to a statewide mask mandate or closing schools. 

The health department consulted with Google Analytics, which reviewed the efficacy of the different mitigation efforts. Frye testified Google found restrictions to bars and restaurant sales would be more effective than a mask mandate. 

Frye said findings from Google included Oklahomans would not necessarily follow a mask mandate. 

Watson said she agreed with the executive order because of the limited space in resources in hospitals. 

On Friday, the state health department reported 1,926 people were hospitalized with the virus. Of those, 467 are in intensive care. The state has reported more than 1,900 hospitalizations since Dec. 28. 

“If you were to come to our emergency departments right now, we would just be working our hardest to make sure we can continue to provide timely care,” Watson said. “We are seeing increased wait times. We are seeing patients having to wait for beds when we haven’t had to do that before.” 

Last month, Judge Susan Stallings issued a temporary restraining order on the 11 p.m. restriction, which stopped the state from enforcing the rule against the business that sued the state. The ABLE commissioner will not enforce the order for any business until the matter is settled in court. 

Stallings said Friday she will consider all arguments and rule on whether to issue an injunction against the executive order later.