phase two
Bars like Cock o' the Walk in northwest Oklahoma City will be able to re-open under social distancing guidelines Friday, May 15, 2020. According to a sign on its front windows, the Cock o' the Walk intends to re-open Monday, May 18. (Andrea DenHoed)

Emphasizing the value of “courage” and “freedom,” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt reiterated his administration’s belief that Friday is an appropriate day to implement phase two of its Open Up and Recover Safely plan.

“Our data shows we are in great shape to move to phase two,” Stitt said. “In phase two, our safer at home order continues to apply through the end of May for Oklahomans who are 65 and older or who have compromised immune systems.”

But organized sports, bars, weddings and funerals will be allowed to resume statewide on Friday, May 15, with “social distancing and sanitization.”

Stitt noted that more than 300 people were considered “currently hospitalized” with COVID-19 a month ago and that those numbers are now down to 217 even 20 days after entering the first phase of his plan to re-open Oklahoma businesses.

“We can always have arguments and disagreements about, ‘Hey, we need to wait until we have 100 people in the hospital,’” Stitt said. “We haven’t seen the surge that some of those early modelers predicted. It’s time to move to phase two.”

A group of Oklahomans operating under the moniker “Save Our State” disagree with the governor and sent him a letter they said was signed by more than 1,000 people in just 24 hours.

“Families are grieving for the loss of their loved ones and we, as a state, have a moral responsibility to ensure that we take every measure possible to prevent the illness, hospitalization and loss of life for our fellow Oklahomans,” the letter states, as reported by Tim Willert of The Oklahoman.

Commerce website offers guidelines, suggestions

The Oklahoma Department of Commerce has posted a series of guidelines for businesses on its website. Bars are encouraged to “maintain social distancing at all times” and “develop, implement and maintain and revise a cleaning and disinfecting plan.” They are asked to prohibit parties of 10 or larger “unless seated in a private area.”

Asked about his guidance for bars, Stitt talked about churches, saying he has been contacted with questions about and examples of how to implement social distancing properly.

“I have no doubt that some of the bar owners will do the same thing,” Stitt said.

Shortly after Stitt’s remarks, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt announced a new municipal executive order with guidelines for phase two re-openings starting Friday. For bars, those include:

  • Employees’ temperatures should be checked each day either by the employee or their employer. Employees with a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher should not be at the facility.
  • Servers and staff interacting with customers must wear a face mask or covering, unless the staff member is behind a barrier such as Plexiglass.
  • Tables for seating must be at least six feet apart.
  • Menus must be single-use or capable of being sanitized with antimicrobial disinfectants after each use.
  • Condiment bottles must be sanitized after each table change, or served in a single-use packet, disposable container or washable dish.
  • Service at buffets and salad bars must be provided by an employee only.
  • Tables, chairs and objects needed to complete a purchase must be sanitized with antimicrobial disinfectants after each use.
  • Standing room-only patios are limited to 50 percent of total patio occupancy capacity.

State Chamber of Oklahoma President Chad Warmington is spearheading Stitt’s “Bounce Back Advisory Group,” and he released a statement after the governor’s press conference.

“The sacrifices made by all Oklahomans over the past few weeks have paid off. Now it is time to resume living our lives with an appropriate emphasis on social distancing and personal hygiene,” Warmington said. “Oklahoma’s economy can’t recover if we don’t all actively participate in it. I encourage Oklahomans to safely support recovery efforts by eating out and visiting your favorite retail and entertainment venues.”

Contact tracing ‘very labor intensive’

phase two contact tracing
Gov. Kevin Stitt watches Secretary of Health and Mental Health Jerome Loughridge discuss contact tracing during a press conference Thursday, May 14, 2020. (Tres Savage)

At the same press conference Thursday, Secretary of Health and Mental Health Jerome Loughridge elaborated on contact tracing, which he called the “shoe leather” approach to identifying community risk from those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

“This is very labor intensive,” he said, noting partnerships with the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and the Oklahoma National Guard.

Loughridge said 150 contact tracers have been trained already and are being “augmented” with 150 other people being trained currently. He said the Oklahoma State Department of Health has the authorization to hire an additional 500 people for contact tracing.

He confirmed that tracing — which involves identifying people COVID-19 patients are or have been in contact with — prioritizes those hospitalized and experiencing symptoms.

“Certainly there is some ordering of folks who are contacted,” Loughridge said, pledging to provide greater detail on the state’s contact tracing efforts in coming days.

Loughridge said Health Department contact tracers have been deployed to Texas County, in the panhandle, where an outbreak at a pork-processing plant has made Guymon the state’s coronavirus hotspot.

“There were over 2,000 tests done at Seaboard (this week),” said Col. Lance Frye, a physician who is helping lead state response efforts as part of the Oklahoma Air National Guard. “We are going to continue to see positive cases spike in Texas County.”

Frye said he thought most of those 2,000 test results from Seaboard Foods employees had not been returned yet, and he noted that 67 of the state’s 100 new cases announced today were from Texas County.

Stitt said that phase two of his plan to re-open state businesses applies across Oklahoma, but he expressed support for local decisions that might need to be made.

“I’ve got a call with the mayor of Guymon this afternoon, and we’ve always been supportive of our local communities to make decisions that are best for them,” Stitt said.

As Stitt was making those remarks, the Oklahoma House of Representatives was hearing an amended version of SB 1102, which would require local jurisdictions to receive approval from the governor before implementing stronger restrictions during a health emergency such as the ongoing pandemic. House members advanced the controversial measure, which would need to return to the Senate for acceptance of the amendment and final legislative approval.

Background on the plan to re-open businesses

phase two
Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration distributed slides portraying data related to COVID-19 on Thursday, May 14, 2020. (Provided)

Stitt announced his phased plan to re-open Oklahoma businesses on April 22. That plan began with personal care businesses re-opening April 24 and featured multiple stages, including a May 1 allowance for restaurants, gyms, theaters and tattoo parlors (by appointment only) to resume operations. Many restaurants re-opened for carryout and patio service, while others remained closed. In Norman, Mayor Breea Clark amended her city order to keep personal care businesses closed, but three businesses sought and received an injunction in Cleveland County District Court. Clark also prohibited houses of worship from re-opening, but she reversed course on that decision after pressure from Attorney General Mike Hunter and U.S. Attorney Tim Downing.

On April 22, Stitt noted that the second phase of his plan — allowing bars and organized sports to resume activities under social distancing guidelines — could commence May 15 if COVID-19 data continued to trend downward.