OKLAHOMA CITY - A state agency's plan to hold a large in-person gathering inside a Midwest City convention center should not amount to a public health threat, Oklahoma leaders said Tuesday.
Despite a record number of new COVID-19 cases, the state's Employment Security Commission said Tuesday it will press forward with hosting multiple days of socially distanced claim-processing events in-person.
The first events will take place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at the Reed Conference Center in Midwest City.
The event is expected to serve as many as 500 claimants a day from the across the state, who are struggling to obtain unemployment benefits.
"Our goal is to process claims as efficiently as possible while also providing an environment where claimants can safely and adequately get their claims resolved in person," said Shelley Zumwalt, the agency's interim director. "Many of the claimants who have outstanding needs require in-person meetings with (agency) staff, accordingly, we made the decision to host socially distanced, in-person events to ensure we can get these claims resolved in a timely manner."
Zumwalt said social distancing will be required with chairs in waiting areas placed 6 feet apart. State employees will be conducting temperature checks. Face masks will be required at all times. Bathrooms, door handles and hand railings will be sanitized frequently.
State health officials, meanwhile, Tuesday warned about the increased risk of COVID-19 community spread due in part to asymptomatic carriers. Health officials reported a record high 585 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who for the first time Tuesday appeared at a press conference wearing a face covering, said people have waited in line outside the state's Employment Commission in Oklahoma City in recent days.
Hundreds have lined up. Some reportedly camped outside the building overnight, searching for a resolution to their claims. Some waited hours, only to be turned away because all appointments were full, intensifying anger and frustration with the process.
Stitt said though the agency has processed 246,000 claims so far, and about 4,000 remain.
"We wanted to meet with them individually because the last 4,000 applicants have language barriers; a lot of them don't speak English," he said. "They have technology issues. They can't actually apply like the 246,000 we've processed."
Stitt said it's time to get them paid, but urged attendees to remain socially distanced and to wear a mask if that's not possible.
"I think people that are looking for unemployment benefits, they want to meet there, and so we want to make that as safe as possible for them," Stitt said. "We want to make that available."
State Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said he's "obviously concerned" about the health risks of holding a public gathering like this. But he said he's also heard from hundreds of frustrated Oklahomans. Many filed for unemployment in March but still haven't received it.
"It's a pretty dire situation," he said.
Nichols said he received a lot of calls in March and April, then experienced a lull for two or three weeks in May.
Now he's seeing another uptick.
The majority of the people are simply trying to find out the status of their claim.
"Obviously COVID needs to be a concern, but that is one of the reasons we have so many people that are unemployed," Nichols said. "I expect (the agency) will take every precaution possible including wearing a mask to keep everybody safe."
He said requiring face masks is an easy way to protect attendees. That's because if everyone wears one, the risk of transmission is about 2 percent.
However, Nichols said the state shouldn't have waited until July to plan this intervention event. It should have happened in April or May.
"I wish there (were) other ways to handle it given the sensitivity around the spread of coronavirus, but the only thing we can count on now is the professionals at the (Employment Security Commission) figuring out the best way to get people processed - and hope that they're right," he said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.