Gov. Kevin Stitt on Wednesday took the most definitive steps so far to start reopening an Oklahoma economy that has been derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, while acknowledging the risk of a new spike in infections that could undermine the effort.
He laid out a three-stage plan that would gradually move from opening up parks and personal care businesses on Friday to restaurants, movie theaters and other venues a week later, and then, by May 15, weddings, funerals and other events.
“Let me be clear: We will do this safely, responsibly and based on the data in our state,” said Stitt, who has faced criticism for refusing to impose tougher restrictions statewide while others have urged an immediate easing of mandates.
He urged Oklahomans to continue using social distancing and taking precautions like wearing a mask.
“We know that this virus will continue to be around for a long time,” he said. “We are not out of the woods yet.”
Here’s a Q&A on some of the issues addressed, and not addressed, at Stitt’s press conference:
What will be opened in each phase?
Stitt’s plan starts with opening, as soon as Friday, state parks, outdoor recreational areas and personal care businesses, such as hair salons, barber shops, spas, nail salons and pet groomers.
“These businesses must maintain distances between customers and encourage customers to wait in their car until it’s time for their appointment to avoid congestion in the lobbies or their entrances,” he said.
Stitt then wants restaurants, movie theaters, sporting venues, gyms and places of worship to open beginning May 1, as long as they follow federally recommended social distancing and sanitation policies. At churches, staff and volunteers should wear masks when interacting with the public, and nurseries should remain closed.
If the state can meet the second set of benchmarks, another phase of the reopening would start May 15. That would involve reopening bars and church nurseries and allowing organized sports, weddings and funerals to resume. Finally, if hospitalizations and cases continue to fall or remain “manageable,” the last phase would start June 1.
How did Stitt justify the moves?
He pointed to White House guidelines, which he said have three main gates that Oklahoma must pass through before it can reopen its economy.
One is achieving a downward trend in the number of people hospitalized for confirmed COVID-19 disease or COVID-like symptoms. On Wednesday, the state reported 284 hospitalizations of such patients statewide, compared with 562 in late March. Others are a decrease in the seven-day rolling average of new confirmed coronavirus cases and declines in influenza-like illnesses and COVID-19 visits to emergency rooms.
Is it too early? According to one model cited by the White House, Oklahoma should not consider easing social distancing measures until after June 8, and only if “strong containment measures” are in place. The model was created by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
What about cities that have their own guidelines in place?
Local governments can decide if they want to continue to keep tighter restrictions than what Stitt announced.
Similar to how several mayors instituted shelter-in-place orders before Stitt announced his “safer-at-home” executive order on March 24, a spokesman for the governor said local governments can set different guidelines than the governor’s.
“The governor has issued statewide guidance that is data-driven and a very measured approach to safely reopening Oklahoma,” said Charlie Hannema, Stitt’s chief of communications. “He is in frequent communication with mayors from across the state and would be happy to connect them to any data or counsel from public health advisors they may need as they begin to reopen their communities.”
During the press conference, Stitt said he believes most of the state’s mayors would follow his reopening recommendations.
But Stitt’s plan drew criticism from Norman Mayor Breea Clark, whose city was among the first to put restrictions on individuals and businesses, before the press conference even ended. In a tweet, she said the governor’s plan would force cities to compete against each other, like the movie “Hunger Games,” for the sales tax revenue from businesses that are able to reopen.
“We are the only state in the nation that ties cities to sales tax to support our general funds the way that we do,” Clark said in another tweet. “It has never been a good system, but the economic fallout from this pandemic is further highlighting why this constitutional provision must change.”
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum both said they plan to continue local restrictions blocking personal care businesses, such as hair salons, spas and nail salons, from opening despite Stitt’s call for these businesses to reopen as early as Friday.
Bynum posted on Facebook that he will announce local reopening plans Friday after meeting with advisers and other local officials. Holt said he too will be evaluating the next steps, while using the White House’s guidelines for reopening, to decide what to do when Oklahoma City’s shelter in place order expires at the end of the month.
Governors in other states, such as Georgia, have put out reopening plans that forbid cities from putting stricter requirements on businesses. In Oklahoma, Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, filed a bill Wednesday that would enshrine that preemption in law. It’s unclear if Dahm’s bill will even get a hearing as the Legislature continues to meet only for the most essential housekeeping activities.
“It is entirely possible to see the dangers this virus poses, while still seeing the danger of keeping our economy closed and our citizens out of work,” Dahm said in a news release. “My bill balances both concerns by providing health guidance for businesses while removing the prohibitions that are keeping them from opening.”
Which business community leaders advised Stitt on his plan?
Stitt said the Governor’s Bounce Back Advisory Group worked with his solutions task force and health advisors to develop the approach. The group is chaired by Chad Warmington, the president and CEO of the State Chamber of Oklahoma. It has 22 members from major industries, including agriculture, banking, transportation, energy, food service and health care.
“The governor gave us a very narrow focus at first,” Warmington said at the press conference. “That narrow focus was: Get Oklahoma open safely. Once we get our goal that Oklahoma opens safely, we can start talking about restoration and restoring the economy.”
Secretary of Commerce Sean Kouplen said the reopening guidelines to business would vary by industry, but would likely go beyond Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.
How important is testing in sustaining the plan?
Stitt said, “Our plan to open up and recover safely includes a significant focus on testing and tracing.” This focus “allows us to better respond to people who get sick and quickly identify who needs to be isolated so we can control the spread of the virus.”
Oklahoma was identified as one of four states with the lowest testing capacity – at fewer than 30 in 1,000 people per month – in a recent email from the White House to governors. The data appears to come from several test manufacturers. At the press conference, Dr. Kayse Shrum, Oklahoma’s secretary of science and innovation, said Oklahoma is clarifying that data. She said Oklahoma’s testing capacity has improved significantly. “In mid-March, we were testing in the hundreds; today, we’ve tested over 45,000,” she said. According to the state Health Department, state and contracted labs had 222,784 tests available and 158,376 tests on order, as of midnight Tuesday.
What about contact tracing?
Contact tracing, where people with a disease are interviewed at length about their movements, interactions and symptoms, is a key part of the state’s mitigation efforts for COVID-19. But it requires a lot of people to do well.
Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, which operate independent health departments, have increased the number of staff working on contact tracing. Last week, officials said upper-level medical students from the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University would also be used or are in training to be able to do contact tracing interviews.
Stitt, however, didn’t provide details on contact tracing in Wednesday’s press conference.
“Enhanced testing and tracing allows us to better respond to people who get sick and quickly identify who needs to be isolated so we can control the spread of the virus,” Stitt said.
When can schools reopen?
Stitt didn’t mention schools. The state Education Department said last week it was beginning to plan what will be needed to reopen schools based on multiple scenarios. All school buildings are closed through the current school year, which ends no earlier than May 8.
What is the state doing about nursing homes?
Stitt said he authorized the National Guard “to go in and do a deep cleaning throughout all of our nursing homes.” As of Wednesday, 63 residents or staff from 17 Oklahoma long-term care facilities have died of the virus. Stitt said 11 teams are entering homes to conduct testing, including tests for antibodies, and contact tracing. “My directive was I want all 17,000 patients, nursing home folks, tested across our state.” It wasn’t clear how far along that process is.
What about voting?
Stitt earlier this week said Oklahoma’s next statewide election, scheduled for June 30, will go on as planned.
The primary election will include legislative and local contests across the state, in addition to contests scheduled to be on the postponed April 7 election. It will also feature a state question that would expand the state’s Medicaid program and extend health coverage to more than 200,000 low-income adults.
Concerns about voting if the coronavirus continues to spread come as Wisconsin health officials recently confirmed that at least 19 people there tested positive for the virus after voting in person or working as election officials in the state’s April 7 election.
A new statewide coalition, called Let the People Vote, sent a letter earlier this week to Election Board Secretary Paul Ziriax asking him to make absentee voting by mail easier for the upcoming election.
Oklahoma is one of 34 states that allows voters to cast their ballot early through the mail without giving a reason. But the absentee ballots must be signed and then notarized by a notary public – a rare requirement nationally that concerns advocates for more convenient voting.
Let the People Vote is arguing that state law also allows voters to send an absentee ballot without a notary as long as the voter swears under the threat of perjury that the information is accurate.
Lawmakers could also pass legislation to clarify or ease voting restrictions.