Saying it is “time for us to do more in our fight against COVID-19,” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced new executive order regulations today that will limit capacities at sporting events and other public gatherings, while also extending previous rules about restaurants, bars and state facilities. That new executive order was officially filed the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 14.
Stitt and Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye said Oklahoma expects to receive enough initial doses of a COVID-19 vaccine before the end of the year for 166,000 Oklahomans.
At the same press conference, Oklahoma Employment Security Commission director Shelley Zumwalt announced that more than 120,000 Oklahomans who have experienced unemployment this year will receive one-time payments of $400 after the state received permission to distribute the remainder of federal funds previously sent to the state for unemployment assistance.
Overall, Stitt preached positivity in his first press conference of the month, even as criticism of his opposition to a mask mandate has intensified and morbidity rates have spiked in recent weeks. Thursday, the State Department of Health reported 35 additional COVID-related deaths.
Despite that and the seven-day rolling average for new COVID-19 cases still hovering around 3,000, he told Oklahomans that the growth curve appears to have flattened and asked that they remain vigilant about washing their hands, watching their distance and wearing facemasks.
“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We are going to get through this together,” Stitt said. “It’s up to every one of us to keep our neighbors safe.”
Stitt’s new executive orders will put more distance between neighbors — in some places. Attendance at youth indoor sporting events will be limited to four spectators per participant or 50 percent of building capacity, whichever is lower. Other public gatherings — such as weddings, funerals and holiday parties — must be limited to 50 percent of venue capacity, unless a local health department has provided an exemption.
Stitt said the new gathering restrictions do not apply to churches, although he is “encouraging them to innovate” with online services and other safety measures.
“With our First Amendment, I’m not going to limit the gathering of churches,” Stitt said. “I think they are doing a really good job.”
When filed Dec. 14, Stitt’s new order specified that the 50 percent cap on capacity of public gatherings “shall not apply to gatherings in a private residence, buildings or businesses providing religious, health care, educational, public safety and childcare services.” It also stated that bars and restaurants are not capped at 50 percent of building occupancy.
Stitt will ‘try to clarify’ 11 p.m. bar, restaurant rule
The governor said he will also be extending his previous executive order regarding state buildings, bars and restaurants. That order required six-foot spacing between tables at bars and restaurants, and it also placed an 11 p.m. deadline on the establishments.
But that order’s wording has spawned confusion among proprietors, some of whom told KFOR’s Austin Breasette that the ABLE Commission has been writing tickets erroneously.
Stitt’s existing order specifies that “food or beverages of any kind shall not be sold, dispensed, or served for on-premises consumption by any license holder (…) after 11 p.m.”
The order does not state that such establishments must close, and some bar and restaurant owners have allowed patrons to stay and finish consuming items purchased prior to 11 p.m.
Asked about the intent of his 11 p.m. rule, Stitt said Thursday that he needed to “check on that.”
“I think it was that 11 p.m. is when the alcohol would stop and they would start shutting it down,” Stitt said. “I think we’re splitting hairs there on staying. I don’t think we expected anybody to shove somebody out the door at 11:01.”
He said his legal team will “go back and try to clarify.”
“Oklahomans always do the right thing. I’m just hoping Oklahomans will do the right thing, but I haven’t specifically asked the ABLE Commission what they are doing, but we can get back with you,” Stitt said.
Stitt’s new executive order, released Dec. 14, did not change the language regarding bar and restaurant hours.
Home for the holidays?
When it comes to the “right thing” this holiday season, Frye — the state health commissioner — asked Oklahomans to keep their family gatherings small and limit them to immediate family.
“As you celebrate, consider gathering virtually or with members of your own household,” Frye said. “Gather outside if the weather permits. (…) We recommend you wear a mask any time you are around people who aren’t members of your own household.”
Frye said he is “struggling with you.”
“Everyone is. But I want to state how important it is that we don’t let our guard down,” he said.
Stitt, meanwhile, acknowledged that he has received criticism for opposing statewide mask mandates, either for school districts or the state as a whole.
“I’ve heard from many Oklahomans who want me to issue a statewide mask mandate,” he said. “I’ve also heard from many many more who don’t want me to. The goal is to get people to wear a mask.”
Stitt displayed a chart showing data from Carnegie Mellon University’s COVIDcast system that uses Facebook data tracks, among other things, mask wearing. Oklahoma’s mask wearing statistic has climbed to about 80 percent, up from about 72.5 percent on Nov. 1.
Stitt said that puts Oklahoma nearly on par with Alabama and Georgia, which have “have had mandates in place since the summer.”
While no statewide mask mandate exists, Oklahoma City has extended its mandate through Jan. 22. Other municipalities have also passed mandates in recent weeks, including Okemah, where the ordinance includes a $100 fine for noncompliance.
Stitt also expressed confidence in the coronavirus vaccine being distributed, noting that since he already has antibodies from the virus he will wait until his doctor recommends he receive it.
“When it becomes my turn, I’m sure I’ll take it,” he said.
The state’s vaccine priority groups can be found here.
(Update: This article was updated at 4:38 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14, to include links to and information from Stitt’s latest executive order.)