Beginning in late June and continuing for several weeks, the White House Coronavirus Task Force warned state leaders that Oklahoma was in the "red zone" for coronavirus transmission. However, despite growing urgency from the White House for the state to adopt new, stricter policies, the recommendations have been largely ignored.
The House Democratic Caucus, led by Norman state representative Emily Virgin, called on the governor to convene a new bi-partisan, expert-led coronavirus task force to provide guidance. In doing so, she claimed "the governor and many state leaders have failed us" and are hiding information. In this Capitol Insider report, KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss the current coronavirus situation in Oklahoma and why stricter public safety measures are not being taken to mitigate the virus.
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. Shawn, as we mentioned last week, the White House Coronavirus Task Force continues to report that Oklahoma is in the red zone for coronavirus transmission with more than 100 positives per 100,000 population. Those reports date back to the end of June, but were only released by Governor Stitt a few days ago. What have those reports said that Oklahoma should be doing to mitigate the coronavirus?
Shawn Ashley: Well, in simplest terms – more - much, much more. And over time, those reports have become more urgent in recommending that the state take very specific actions. In the most recent report, for example, they recommended that a statewide mask mandate be implemented - not for the first time, but for the third or fourth time. They also suggest that bars, nightclubs and entertainment venues be closed because it's difficult to social distance there and difficult to wear a mask. They also recommend that indoor dining be limited to 25 percent and that social gatherings in red zone counties, and there were currently 19 in the White House Task Force report, be limited to 10 or fewer individuals. And in the 24 red zone counties, those limits be set at 25 or less.
Dick Pryor: Why is the state not following the White House guidance?
Shawn Ashley: Well, Governor Stitt has been pretty specific and emphatic in what he has said, and that is that a statewide mask mandate would be difficult, if not impossible to enforce and that Oklahomans don't want to see businesses closed.
Again, the reports, including the most recent one, urged state and local officials, however, to work together to see that those type of things could be enforced. And in fact, some businesses seem to be doing that on their own. In my neighborhood, for example, a number of restaurants have not reopened their dining rooms and are only making food available for takeout. And other restaurants in the area are also limiting seating.
Dick Pryor: Shawn, enforcement is what government does all the time, every day since the beginning of statehood. We have 92 titles of statutes in Oklahoma that lay out laws, regulations, codes and requirements, and virtually all of them have enforcement provisions. Is it still the governor's office's position that health and safety regulations and requirements cannot be enforced?
Shawn Ashley: That seems to be the case, but I really think the bigger issue is one of politics. Masks and business closings have become political issues. We even heard them mentioned in the Democrat and Republican national conventions. And you're right. Government has various mechanisms to enforce its requirements and its regulations. And if there's a public concern about those, there's a mechanism to address that as well, and that's through the court system.
Dick Pryor: The state has a seven-point-three percent positivity test rate since March. The positivity rate for the week of August 16th through 22nd showed Oklahoma's rate at nine-point nine-percent, which ranks the state as having the eighth-highest positivity test rate in the nation. Now, that's not likely what Governor Stitt had in mind when he said he wanted Oklahoma to be a Top Ten state. Given this reporting from the White House, what is the governor's office and his advisers doing about getting Oklahoma off that Top Ten list?
Shawn Ashley: Really, not much. Interim Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye issued a medical advisory on August 13th that, among other things, recommended those eleven years of age or older wear a mask and also recommended that restaurants make some changes in their operations to help avoid community spread. But these were simply recommendations. They were not mandates or requirements. The state response really seems to be less about mitigating COVID-19 and more focused on making sure there is a hospital bed available for those who contract COVID-19.
Dick Pryor: StateImpact Oklahoma and The Oklahoman surveyed more than 130 school districts and found that only about a third will require staff and students to wear face coverings. There's a lot of pressure on local school administrators to resume in-person classes, but there is no firm direction from the State Board of Education. Some districts are choosing not to follow the state board's safety recommendations. What is State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister planning to do about that?
Shawn Ashley: Well, Superintendent Hofmeister wants to know why some districts are not following the recommendations that were approved by the board back in July in a fairly contentious meeting. Also, board member Carlisha Bradley suggested that it may be time for the board to look at implementing a mask mandate of its own for all school districts. Now, that was not taken up at Thursday's meeting because it was not an item on the agenda. And, Superintendent Hofmeister said she believed greater discussion among the board would be necessary before such action could be taken.
Dick Pryor: Fair to say this is a very fluid situation right now.
Shawn Ashley: Absolutely.
Dick Pryor: Thanks, Shawn.
Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.
Dick Pryor: That’s Capitol Insider. If you have questions, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org or ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.