Flanked by Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell and Commissioner of Health Gary Cox on the left and Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister and a translator on the right, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks to media Thursday, March 12, 2020, about COVID-19. (Tres Savage)

As state health officials monitor the spread of COVID-19, members of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s cabinet and legislative leaders are having “contingency” discussions about how they could “wrap up the budget” and conclude the 2020 session early if a community outbreak of the coronavirus were to occur.

“My Secretary of State Michael Rogers has talked to leaders in both the House and Senate that if it progresses — if there were a community outbreak — how quickly could we get out of this building and wrap up the budget,” Stitt said after a press conference this afternoon. “Constitutionally, we have a date certain we have to be out of here. So we certainly don’t want to come back to a special session. That’s something we have talked about internally with the three of us. If we needed to pull that lever, we could. There would be a period of time where we had to get everything wrapped up, but we could do it.”

Stitt’s remarks on 2020 session contingencies came after he and other state health officials held a packed press conference that featured reporters shouting over one another.

“We certainly wouldn’t want to do a special session. If something couldn’t wait we could obviously come back in for special session,” Stitt said. “If there were an unforeseen circumstance and we had to get out of this building quickly because of any kind of outbreak, then we could wrap up session.”

Earlier in the day, House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) expressed confidence in state health leaders, referenced the “contingency” plans and said response decisions need to be measured.

“Panic is the toughest thing to deal with. We want people to be educated and informed,” McCall said. “We view our jobs to be to respond, but we don’t want people to panic.”

McCall’s press conference marked his first of the 2020 legislative session, which neared its halfway point this week with a deadline to move measures out of their chamber of origin. He said the House has sent 410 bills to the Senate, meaning plenty of work remains despite fears over COVID-19, commonly referred to as the coronavirus.

“There is no plan to close the government or the Capitol building at this time. The coronavirus situation right now we understand is fluid. We will develop contingencies to respond to any situation that may occur. (…) “We are listening to the health organizations and paying attention to what the State Department of Health has to say (and) the CDC and the World Health Organization.”

McCall said health department officials have not requested funding to assist with COVID-19 response, but he said the Legislature has the ability to meet needs if they arise.

Charles McCall COVID-19
House Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka) addresses COVID-19 concerns with media Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Tres Savage)

Public access to Capitol could be limited

During his presser, Stitt told Oklahomans that he and Commissioner of Health Gary Cox are working with state, federal and local partners to monitor and respond to the coronavirus outbreak.

“This is the top priority of my administration,” Stitt said. “At this time, there is no sign of community spread whatsoever.”

Stitt announced a new executive order guiding nursing homes, veterans centers, long-term care homes and other entities that care for seniors, who comprise the most potentially vulnerable population. That executive order will eventually be posted here.

Cox revealed details of the state’s testing capacity and practices, saying more than 100 COVID-19 tests can be completed per day.

“We continue to monitor the situation closely,” Cox said, noting that a third person in Oklahoma has preliminarily tested positive.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister also spoke Thursday and encouraged school districts to make their own determinations about whether to cancel events. At this time, the state is not closing schools.

“Nothing is more important than the safety and wellbeing of our students and families and those who work in our schools to serve them,” Hofmeister said. “I encourage school districts to follow guidance from the SDH regarding travel.”

Earlier in the day, House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) urged Oklahomans to wash their hands, avoid touching their faces and “be considerate of those who are more vulnerable.”

“Most people who get the virus are going to recover and be fine, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to take precautions,” Virgin said.

She said McCall is keeping her apprised of the contingency discussions regarding the ongoing legislative session.

“I feel good about the conversation I had with the speaker that we are constantly monitoring the situation and talking to the State Department of Health and heeding their advice on things,” Virgin said. “I think that looking at limiting public access is something we are doing and should continue to do.”

COVID-19 closing entities, postponing events

In the nation’s capital, Congress has decided to do just that by closing the U.S. Capitol to the public until April. The decision came as President Donald Trump announced a month-long restriction of travel Wednesday evening.

Earlier Thursday, the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University announced that Norman, Stillwater and OSU-Tulsa campus classes will resume in an online capacity from March 23 through April 3 after next week’s spring break.

That announcement came hours after an Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game was cancelled and the NBA suspended its season owing to the preliminary COVID-19 diagnosis of a Utah Jazz player. A second Jazz player, reported as Donovan Mitchell, was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Thursday. The day before, Mitchell reportedly met with Del City High School students in Oklahoma.

As of 9:25 a.m., the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association posted online that it intended to continue its state basketball tournaments despite the NBA’s decision and the cancellation of the Big 12 basketball tournament. Three hours later, however, the OSSAA posted that it had postponed its annual tournaments.