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White House Officials Push Oklahoma To Close Bars And Mandate Masks In Private Task Force Document

Gov. Kevin Stitt, center, and White House Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, right, at a private roundtable in Tulsa on Aug. 16
Office of Gov. Kevin Stitt
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Gov. Kevin Stitt, center, and White House Coronavirus Task Force response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, right, at a private roundtable in Tulsa on Aug. 16

The White House Coronavirus Task Force recommended Oklahoma close all of its bars and implement a statewide mask mandate. That recommendation came in a report that the White House has not released to the public, and that state officials have not released to city and public health leaders.

 

For several months, the task force has been sending governors reports, which contain tailored data and recommendations for their states. Those documents haven’t been released to the public, but the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity has been obtaining and publishing them.

The most recent one came this week. It placed Oklahoma in the “red zone,” a designation for states with more than 100 cases per 100,000 people, and ranked it 15th in the nation for case counts. The report recommended a statewide mask mandate, the closure of all bars and restrictions on indoor dining. Gov. Kevin Stitt has rejected these policies publicly. He has maintained that Oklahomans have no appetite for business closures and stay-at-home orders because of the damage they cause the economy, and that a statewide mask mandate in Oklahoma simply wouldn’t work.

“We respect people’s rights to stay home if they want, to run their businesses, and not wear a mask,” he said in a COVID-19 press conference on July 15.

The Center for Public Integrity published the most recent report just days after the task force response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, visited Oklahoma. Top elected officials, including Gov. Stitt and many of his staff, held a private roundtable with Birx on Sunday. The event was closed to the media, and the governor’s office released no recordings or meeting notes. It issued a press release with two quotes from the governor and photos of the meeting.

A few officials answered questions after the roundtable, outside the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences building in which it was held. That included Gov. Stitt, who told reporters that Birx offered no recommendations for Oklahoma.

“She was very complimentary of our testing plan and what we’re doing with our universities,” read one of the quotes in the release on Sunday. “I had Secretary of Science and Innovation Elizabeth Pollard discussing our strategy, and Dr. Birx said she’s going to take that back with her and share some of it with the other states she is visiting.”

The Center for Public Integrity first published a White House Coronavirus Task Force document on July 16. That report’s Oklahoma section contained many recommendations, such as messaging campaigns to encourage mask use and limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer. It also offered more stringent recommendations for certain localities with higher case counts, including Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Miami.

Officials within those localities soon raised concerns that the governor’s office didn’t share that information with them.

The Oklahoma City County-Health Department held a special meeting about COVID-19 on July 20. The department’s executive director, Dr. Patrick McGough, said that state officials did not let them know the task force recommended their county close its bars and require masks. 

“We were never given that information,” he said during the meeting. “Information in every direction is not what it should be.”

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum echoed those sentiments during the city’s weekly COVID-19 update three days later. He did so again on Thursday, when he said that he and the Tulsa Health Department see those reports only when they’re in the news.

“Is there frustration that there’s information out there about Tulsa that we’re finding out by accident?” he said. “Yes.”

Federal officials have also raised concerns about Gov. Stitt’s response to the White House Coronavirus Task Force documents, according to reporting by The Oklahoman. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, one of the top-ranking Democrats in the House of Representatives and  chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said in a letter to Stitt that the White House task force “has apparently provided Oklahoma with private suggestions concerning public health measures designed to stop the spread of the virus, the state has not implemented many of these recommendations — and instead appears to be following the contradictory public messaging coming from the Administration.”

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

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