Mike R. Davis
Mike Davis analyzes Oklahoma’s emergency powers statutes to determine whether the governor or a mayor has the authority to order businesses to close during an epidemic.
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A Legal Primer on Oklahoma’s Communicable Disease, Quarantine, and Isolation Laws
Question presented: Are Oklahoma mayors acting within their legal authority when they force businesses to limit person to person contact, or to close altogether, to control the spread of an infectious disease?
Legal Analysis: The short answer is yes.
Under normal circumstances, local health officials are authorized to quarantine anyone with
“a communicable disease of public health concern.” 63 OKLA. STAT. § 63-1-504 (2019). The State Board of Health is given broad authority over “regulation of public meetings and gatherings in epidemic situations.” id. Courts are also empowered to enforce quarantines with injunctions and restraining orders. 63 OKLA. STAT. § 63-1-502 (2019). These statutes alone do not authorize a mayor to take such actions, but they do establish that such actions are within the purview of government officials.
The Oklahoma Emergency Management Act of 2003 (OEMA) authorizes the governor and city mayors to declare an emergency. 63 OKLA. STAT. §63-683.1 (2019). It authorizes “the creation of local organizations for emergency management in the counties and incorporated municipalities of this state,” and confers “upon the Governor and upon the executive heads or governing bodies of the political subdivisions of the state the emergency powers provided by the Oklahoma Emergency Management Act.” 63 OKLA. STAT. §63-683.2 (2019). The governor is empowered to direct and control “the conduct of civilians and the movement of and cessation of movement of pedestrians and vehicular traffic during, prior and subsequent to natural and man-made disasters and emergencies,” ”public meetings or gatherings,” and ”the evacuation and reception of the civil population.” The governor is also empowered to delegate his emergency powers, and to authorize sub-delegation. See 63 OKLA. STAT. § 63-683.8 (2019).
The OEMA requires each political subdivision to create emergency management organizations, and appoint directors who report directly to the chief executive or the chief operating officer of the subdivision. Subdivisions are required to develop and disseminate an emergency plan, and to coordinate with state agencies. 63 OKLA. STAT. § 63-683.11 (2019).“Each local organization for emergency management shall perform emergency management functions within the territorial limits of the political subdivisions within which it is organized.” id.
There is broad power delegated to political subdivisions in cases of emergency. For instance in Tulsa, following a list of specific enumerated powers, including the power to cut off all sales of alcohol and to suspend the sale of gasoline, the city ordinances give the mayor the power to make “[s]uch other orders as are imminently necessary for the protection of life and property.” Tulsa Rev. Ord. Tit. 8, Sec. 202. Oklahoma City has an even longer list of activities that can be restricted, but the list once again concludes with broad language. The mayor may prohibit “such other activities as he reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.” Oklahoma City Code 15-36.
All government action is subject to judicial review, so a court could review whether the declaration of an emergency was necessary, and whether the actions taken were reasonable in light of the situation at hand. However, courts are likely to give added deference to state and local officials who have even a colorable belief that what they were doing was in furtherance of public health and safety. There is a long tradition, stretching back to the common law, of courts giving wide latitude in emergency situations. Oklahoma statutes are littered with language limiting or disclaiming civil liability for both public and private actors in times of emergency.
No opinion is offered here as to whether current events warrant emergency declarations, much less whether the specific provisions invoked are wise. It is merely a guide to the source of such emergency powers.