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Capitol Insider: Oklahoma Becoming COVID-19 'Hot Spot'

The state of Oklahoma and three Native American tribes have signalled cooperation after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma raised concerns about jurisdiction for enforcement of criminal laws. Details still have to be worked out, but the move is a step toward a negotiated settlement. The news was not so encouraging regarding COVID-19 in the state. As schools work toward opening in the fall, coronavirus cases surge and the state's economic "re-opening" is called into question. KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss the latest developments. 


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider - your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley.

The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which held that tribal lands are reservations under the federal Major Crimes Act, caused immediate concerns about criminal prosecutions in Indian Country.

Leaders from three of the Five Tribes in Oklahoma and Attorney General Mike Hunter have announced an agreement in principle to clarify state and tribal jurisdiction in criminal and civil matters. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Seminole Nation were originally considered part of the agreement in principle, but on Friday the chiefs of those nations announced they are not.  

Shawn Ashley: Yes, with this agreement in principle would do is provide an outline for federal legislation that would affirm the Five Tribes' jurisdiction in criminal matters committed by Native Americans in Indian Country. It also would give the state some concurrent jurisdiction for dealing with those crimes in certain instances. Principal Chief David Hill of the Creek Nation pointed out, however, that he did not want to see this issue addressed via legislation. And he and the Seminole chief also raised the issue of sovereignty - a key issue in any discussion with our tribal nations.

Dick Pryor: On Wednesday, the state reached record COVID-19 highs in hospitalizations and daily new cases, reporting more than 1,000 new cases. This surge is coming as schools are preparing to reopen. Oklahoma Education Association president Alicia Priest sounded the alarm that schools need to be properly prepared before schools open. What do teachers want?

Shawn Ashley: Well, put simply, teachers are concerned about returning to the classroom in the COVID-19 era. They're concerned about how students will be protected from the potential spread of the disease, as well as how teachers themselves will be protected. Alicia Priest said we will come back, but only when it's safe. Now, back at the beginning of June, the State Department of Education outlined its framework called Return to Learn Oklahoma, that provides guidance for local school districts as they prepare to reopen in the fall. That guidance is designed to allow school districts to sort of pick and choose what's necessary for their particular community based on the amount of COVID-19 spread in their area.

Dick Pryor:The Center for Public Integrity has obtained an unpublished report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force that urges 18 "hot spot" states to roll back their reopening. And Oklahoma is one of those states.

Shawn Ashley:  Governor Kevin Stitt sort of hinted at this report back on June 30th when he announced that he was directing the State Department of Health to produce its risk map or alert map heat map of COVID-19 spread in the state of Oklahoma.

The state Department of Health put out their first version of that map on July 8th, and it's since been revised.Originally, there were eleven counties in the state of Oklahoma that were in the green zone. These are the lowest levels of spread. However, that has now been reduced to six. And there were only four counties in the third highest of the four categories, the orange category. But in the most recent update, that has increased to 18. 

Now, in terms of the White House report, what this shows is that the spread of COVID-19 in Oklahoma and other states is perhaps quite rapid and they make some very serious recommendations on how to address that. Many of those recommendations have not yet been implemented in Oklahoma, such as a statewide mask mandate, limiting gatherings again to ten or fewer people and closing bars and gyms. It even goes so far as to suggest that the state provide isolation facilities outside of households for COVID-19 positive individuals who may not be able to properly quarantine at home.

Dick Pryor: Governor Kevin Stitt made national news on Wednesday when he announced he had tested positive for COVID-19, making him the first governor to test positive. The governor said he felt achy, was tested on Tuesday and got the results Tuesday afternoon at 12:30. But Tuesday morning, the governor chaired the Commissioners of the Land Office meeting, did not wear a mask and sat close to Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell and Secretary of Agriculture Blayne Arthur, who were also not wearing face coverings. So, what's happening with people who were in the room for that meeting?

Shawn Ashley: Well, most of the governor's staff is now working from home and some of them will be tested for COVID-19. Members of the governor's state security team are also in quarantine and some of them will be tested. Lieutenant Governor Matt Pinnell and Secretary of Agriculture Blayne Arthur, who were sitting less than six feet from Governor Stitt and not wearing masks, are also in isolation and will be tested. And then finally, I was one of three reporters who spoke to Governor Stitt at that meeting less than an arm's length away. He was not wearing a mask. And now, I'm in quarantine and soon will be tested for COVID-19.

Dick Pryor: And that's your second time to have to go through this process because of exposure while working at the State Capitol. 

Shawn Ashley: That's correct. 

Dick Pryor: Well, take care, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: Thank you very much.

Dick Pryor: Thanks. And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 30 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November 2016.
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