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Will power: Being Stillwater’s mayor isn’t what it used to be

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Mayor Will Joyce

Mayor Will Joyce, who doesn't even have an office at city hall, has to lead a city during a pandemic and balance a day job.

Stillwater Mayor Will Joyce carries a power title, yet can’t even claim an office in city hall.

So much for perks of the job.

In a normal year, the significant issues a Stillwater mayor has to deal with ranges from riding Oklahoma State’s homecoming parade, a few ribbon-cutting ceremonies and some city development and zoning.

Not in 2020. 

During the pandemic, Joyce’s name makes national headlines (for the wrong reasons) because of COVID-19 in Stillwater –– but being the mayor isn’t even his full-time job.

“It’s been weird,” Joyce said. “It’s tough to describe… (Being Stillwater’s mayor) is a pretty defined set of things that we generally deal with. But this has been entirely unlike what our normal set of issues would be.”

Joyce, a lawyer who serves as general counsel at Stillwater-based technology company InterWorks in his “day” job, juggles many things in his daily schedule. Usually he’s able to block time off to adhere to his mayoral duties.

Not in 2020.

“With COVID, it’s been a little bit different because if the phone rings and it’s the health department or if something comes up, you can’t really ignore it or tell them, ‘I’ll call you back in three hours,’” Joyce said. “You have things that are a little more pressing.”

When it comes to the tasks Joyce performs as mayor during a pandemic, it’s all about constant communication. Joyce has to ensure that various large organizations across the city are engaging in daily chats, and that the information is accurate.

“It is sometimes difficult to balance all the competing demands and try to keep up with everything and make sure we’re getting everything going and having the conversations we need to have,” Joyce said. “From my perspective, my role during the pandemic, a lot of it has been coordinating conversation, making sure it’s being shared across different parts of the community, making sure I’m hearing from the Payne County Health Department and the hospital and the city and the schools and the university…

“I think my role is to try to aggregate a lot of that and make sure that communication is not being siloed and make sure people are having those conversations together.”

But this journey isn’t only about dealing with reaching national newspapers for his response to crowded bars, backlash from mask mandates or shuffling his schedule around. Joyce felt genuine pain throughout this –– particularly after the city’s first death in early July.

“One of those moments that really just kinda hits you and makes the situation all that more real,” Joyce said. “Not that we haven’t been taking it seriously or that we haven’t been concerned, but when somebody from the community dies, it makes you think about the situation a little differently and why it’s so important that we’re taking some of the precautions that we’re taking.

“That was certainly a time I had to sit and regroup for a little bit. It was not unexpected, we were sure we’d see it… but seeing a member of the community die it was so difficult to deal with that.”

On top of the hardships, Joyce faces frequent criticism. In August, a pre-petition circulated online attempting to recall Mayor Joyce and the entire city council. 

The petition claimed that Joyce and the council members failed “to support, obey and defend the constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma” … They deprived and restricted Stillwater citizens of their “inherent right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the enjoyment of the GAINS OF THEIR OWN INDUSTRY” … They violated the “freedom of Oklahomans to provide for their health care” … They violated individuals’ "RELIGIOUS FREEDOMS under the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution which no government official can interfere with, restrict or prohibit” … They mandated people to “surrender their freedoms on the basis of a virus with an approximate 0.004% mortality rate to state control contrary to OSHA guidelines.”

Some experts, including former Stillwater Mayor Gina Noble, disagreed with the opinions in this pre-petition and said she’s grateful for Joyce’s leadership during this unprecedented crisis.

“Being the mayor in any city right now would be extremely tough,” Noble said. “Mayor Joyce is doing a great job and handling everything with compassion, grace and dignity. I trust him and the city council members to lead us through the many unknowns of the pandemic because they are making decisions based on scientific data.”

As things stand right now, Joyce is remaining vigilant when it comes to his virus response. After dealing with the first death and two others after that, Joyce just wants his community to stay safe amid a major public health crisis.

Stillwater medical center’s current ICU capacity is 16, the current volume of patients is 8 and its current COVID/PUI is two. The city has 384 active cases, 1,557 total cases, 1,173 recoveries and three deaths.

“The more cases there are in our community, the more chance there is for it to jump into a more vulnerable population,” Joyce said. “Right now and earlier in the summer when we had a jump in cases, it’s mainly been among younger folks and we haven’t seen a big jump in hospitalizations or deaths with either of those spikes, but the bigger they get, the more cases there are, the more chances there are for that to go up.

“There’s just no way around that. So I remain concerned about the growth of the virus. And the thing that bothers me the most… is the argument being made by some of the folks who are getting this disease right now which is ‘I’m not worried about me. I’m not gonna get sick, I’m young, healthy, I should be able to make that decision for myself and risk myself, I’m not worried about it. Quit trying to protect me from this, let me protect myself.’ 

“That very self-centered argument being made… that’s a really difficult argument to deal with from a public policy standpoint because it’s hard to convince people that it’s not about them getting sick. Again, when they get sick, they may be fine. The more people in this community that test positive for coronavirus, the more opportunity there is for someone who is not as robust, not as healthy as you to become infected. That is what I think is so frustrating for me right now.”

One day this pandemic will end. Life will adjust back to normal and Stillwater’s city issues may return to problems with sewers, school board meetings and ribbon cuttings. 

But as Joyce has proven this year, he is ready for anything that comes his way.

“I think that’s why people elected me to do this job. So I could go to all the meetings they don’t have to be at, so I could have all the conversations they don’t necessarily have to have and then let them know what’s going on,” Joyce said. “To try to do it in the most straightforward, plainspoken way that I can. I just want people to know what’s happening.”

editorinchief@ocolly.com