Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said Thursday he will lift all of the state’s restrictions for COVID-19, vowing to let Oklahomans “get their summer back” as cases and hospitalizations drop and vaccinations continue to rise.
Speaking at a news conference at the Capitol recapping the state’s response to the coronavirus in the past year, Stitt said he will issue an executive order on Friday rolling back the state’s restrictions. Among them are restrictions on public gatherings and wearing of masks in state buildings and for state employees. The state has never put in place a statewide mask mandate, although most of the state’s largest cities continue to have mask requirements.
“One year later, we’re coming to an end of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Stitt said. “The worst is behind us, and the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter than ever before. Oklahoma, we are on track to get our summer back.”
Stitt checked off his administration’s responses to COVID-19 since the first Oklahoma coronavirus case in March 2020. He said the state pushed free testing and scrambled to get personal protective equipment for health care employees, nursing homes and schools. The state used more than $1.2 billion in federal funds to help small businesses, provide rental assistance and unemployment benefits.
“We were the first state to fully reopen on June 1 last year, which put 100,000 more Oklahomans back to work,” Stitt said. “Now we have the lowest unemployment in the region and a budget surplus of $1.6 billion. That means we don’t have to cut core services like so many other states are having to face.”
Stitt’s optimistic tone glossed over some of the flashpoints in the past year of the state’s response to the pandemic, with mask mandates among the most prominent.
From the beginning, Stitt said a statewide order would be hard to enforce. But as cases spiked in summer, fall and winter, more cities put in their own mandates. The Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force recommended a statewide mandate week after week in the last few months of the year.
Stitt relented somewhat in mid-November with an executive order to wear masks for state employees and in state buildings. That was coupled with restrictions on indoor dining and bars.
Stitt on Thursday said wearing a mask should be a personal choice, but advised Oklahomans to continue to be wary of the coronavirus. He said the state’s goal was never to get to zero cases and was focused mostly on reducing hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.
“Wearing a mask should be a personal decision based on your circumstances,” Stitt said. “But let me be clear. COVID is still here in Oklahoma. It’s still in the United States and we still need to do our part. You can still, and you’re even encouraged, to wear a mask depending on your circumstances.”
The Oklahoma State Medical Association questioned Stitt’s lifting of the restrictions as it praised the state’s vaccination rollout. It urged Oklahomans to get vaccinated as soon as they are able and to continue wearing masks, watching their distance and washing their hands.
“But letting up on our efforts to battle COVID now is like a football player spiking the ball at the 5-yard line,” said Dr. George Monks, president of the medical association. “We are nearing the goal, but we are not there yet. I applaud all of the municipalities who have kept their mask ordinances and other commonsense measures in place as we work toward protecting our population.”
Oklahoma has consistently been among the top states for its vaccination rollout, with the state ranking in the top 10 for adults starting their first dose and doses administered per 100,000 people. To date, the state has given more than 1.3 million doses of the vaccine. About two-thirds of Oklahomans older than 65 have received both doses of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
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“This week, we moved into Phase 3 of our vaccine rollout,” Stitt said. “That means 2 million more Oklahomans are now eligible. We are getting doses in arms as soon as they come into the state.”
Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye said the state will continue to work with its partners to provide additional guidance on how residents can gather safely into the summer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this week released guidelines saying fully vaccinated people could gather in small groups with other vaccinated people without masks.
“The vaccine is very safe and very effective,” Frye said. “It prevents you from getting seriously ill or dying from COVID-19. That’s a key part of helping us get back to normal, or what our new normal will be. We are transitioning into that now as our cases come down throughout the state and vaccinations go up.”
On Thursday, the state’s 7-day moving average of new cases was 615. That’s down 85% from recent highs in mid-January. The state’s daily hospitalizations for COVID-19 are at their lowest levels since June after peaking near 2,000 per day in January.
Oklahoma has recorded more than 7,400 deaths from COVID-19, based on provisional totals from death certificates sent to the CDC. Those numbers are subject to upward revisions as CDC receives additional data from the state.
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017. He covers state agencies and public health. Call or text him at (571) 319-3289 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @pmonies.
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