Kevin Stitt show, masks
Kevin Stitt speaks on the campaign trail in August 2018. (Michael Duncan)

Gov. Kevin Stitt and some of Oklahoma’s most prominent doctors want residents to take the “personal responsibility” of wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands, but they oppose a statewide mask-wearing mandate despite spiking COVID-19 cases and a strained hospital system.

The governor and the doctors attempted to thread their rhetorical needle — again — at a press conference this afternoon on the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center campus, simultaneously begging for compliance with their suggestions and awkwardly arguing that there’s very little state leaders can do.

“Obviously a lot of this press conference is about doing the right thing. So we’ve said 100 times up here, wear a mask, keep your distance,” Stitt said. “But as far as a mandate, I’ve been very clear that I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. This is about pleading with people to do the right thing.”

Stitt, however, has seen a growing number of people pleading with him to do what they consider the “right things”: issue a statewide executive order requiring mask wearing in public spaces and private businesses, or perhaps pull the proverbial slow-down levers supposedly included in his Open Up and Recover Safely plan.

In May, when hospitalizations were hovering between 200 and 300, Stitt said climbing hospitalization numbers might necessitate reimplementation of business restrictions. Tuesday, the Oklahoma State Department of Health said more than 1,100 were currently hospitalized, but Stitt continued to brag about Oklahoma’s economy being fully open. In other states with higher infection rates, he noted, you can’t even eat inside a restaurant.

‘A mask is not political’

Stitt and Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye were joined by four doctors Tuesday:

  • Dr. David Chansolme, INTEGRIS Health medical director of infection Prevention
  • Dr. Cameron Mantor, OU Health Hospitals chief medical officer
  • Dr. Linda Salinas, OU Health COVID-19 medical branch director
  • Dr. Julie Watson, vice president medical affairs INTEGRIS Health and INTEGRIS Baptist chief medical officer

Watson begged for people in rural areas to wear masks, noting she grew up outside Checotah and name-dropping pop singer Carrie Underwood in the process.

“The science is clear,” she said about masks. “The government nor the governor should have to mandate we do the right thing. We know better.”

Watson said data indicate that, since Aug. 1, cases in cities that have enacted mask requirements have risen 21 percent, while cases in cities without mask ordinances have jumped 88 percent.

“A mask is not political,” Watson said.

Judging from arguments raging in the chat area of the press conference’s YouTube stream, however, that is not the case. Viewers bickered over the definition of freedom, whether it’s possible to “boost” an immune system and the efficacy of vaccinations. One woman even suggested that responses to the novel coronavirus pandemic are part of the supposed Agenda 21 new world order.

Stitt himself must recognize the political nature of mask wearing and mask mandates, if only because Dr. Ervin Yen announced his intent last week to challenge Stitt in the 2022 Republican gubernatorial primary, specifically emphasizing his belief that Oklahoma’s governor should mandate masks statewide.

“I would do a statewide mask mandate,” Yen said. “If you do it after you see cases in a rural area, it’s too late. It’s already there spreading like crazy.”

Mantor, the chief medical officer for OU Health Hospitals, noted Oklahoma’s recent spread of COVID-19 by saying the daily rolling average of coronavirus-related deaths has jumped from seven to 14 in the past week. In the past 10 days, he said, active cases have climbed from 15,000 to 20,000 statewide.

“These are significant increases which affect both our communities as well as our health care systems and our health care workers,” Mantor said.

When it comes to what state leaders may do about these statistics, little was explained Tuesday. Stitt said he had asked the Oklahoma Board of Nursing to “clear any red tape” for nursing students or out-of-state nurses to practice here. He also said he might consider implementing another executive order to limit “elective surgeries” and ease hospital strain, although Watson called such a limit a doctor’s “worst nightmare.”

Lastly, Stitt noted the reimplementation of Oklahoma’s regional medical response system, which helps coordinate hospital bed availability. Mantor, meanwhile, said a new floor of hospital beds had opened on the OU campus.

House Democrats seek mask mandate, special session

Earlier Tuesday, House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) again called for additional steps related to the spread of COVID-19 in Oklahoma.

Virgin said both of her parents had been hospitalized owing to COVID-19, and she called on Stitt to enact a statewide mask mandate, something he has opposed for months.

“Gov. Stitt says he’s asking Oklahomans to do the right thing and protect each other. Well, governor, we’re asking you to do the right thing: Protect Oklahomans by enacting a statewide mask order,” Virgin said. “If the governors of surrounding states and other red states like Utah can make the decision to enact a statewide mask order, you can, too.”

She also called for a special session of the Oklahoma Legislature to extend a temporary state law allowing public bodies to meet via teleconference or video conference.

“In March, in the name of public safety, we passed legislation to protect Oklahoman’s lives and the ability for public bodies to function without the risk of spreading COVID. These aren’t my words. These are the words of the Republican leaders who supported this legislation,” Virgin said in a press release. “The COVID situation in Oklahoma has gotten worse, not better since the Legislature saw it fit to enact this provision. To allow this accommodation to expire would be entirely irresponsible. If we all agreed that the situation was dangerous enough in March to allow public bodies to meet this way, then logic dictates we would renew this provision.”

In his press conference, Stitt said local and state boards and commissions would simply need to meet in person between Nov. 15 and Feb. 1, when the Legislature returns for its normal 2021 session.

“Open meetings is something that the public and the press want to have access,” Stitt said.

Stitt’s speech Tuesday may not have sat well with even one of his typically strong Republican supporters back in his hometown of Tulsa. Mayor G.T. Bynum issued a statement Monday evening asking that more be done in the wake of full hospitals in the Tulsa area.

“Just as our health care system is a regional one, our response to fighting COVID-19 must be a regional one too,” Bynum said in his statement. “Tulsans cannot fight this on our own. I again implore the state and our neighboring communities to listen to those medical professionals asking for steps to be taken that will slow the spread of this virus. Politically convenient speeches about freedom and personal responsibility are not preventing our ICUs from being maxed out.”