Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt hasn’t been willing to order masks statewide in his conservative stronghold no matter who’s come calling.
He hasn’t been willing to take further steps requiring face coverings as a public health measure even as local mayors have hoped to see more action from the governor. When the head of a House subcommittee charged with monitoring COVID response scolded him for his approach, he didn’t budge. Even after some Republican governors relented and ordered facial coverings as the coronavirus ravaged their states, Stitt hasn’t moved.
Not even reports from the White House Coronavirus Task Force that have recommended in recent weeks that the state implement a mask requirement has changed his mind.
“I'm not going to mandate something statewide," Stitt said during a press conference Tuesday, saying the decision should be left to the local level. “Every community is different.”
That lack of follow-through from the governor has disappointed some elected officials in the state as they try to contain the coronavirus through a patchwork of local mask requirements. As of Monday, 17 cities and towns had mask ordinances according to the Oklahoma State Medical Association.
“It really is much less effective than if the governor would take action,”said John Browne, the Democratic mayor of McAlester, Oklahoma. “Because I can have a mask requirement in my town and the town next door not have it. So you're not getting the benefit that you would get if everyone were following the same rules.”
The push for a statewide mask order has continued as documents from the White House Coronavirus Task Force have shown the state’s coronavirus situation at an alarming level.
In the most recent report published online and dated Aug. 23, the task force said the state had the “12th highest rate in the nation,” for new cases out of 100,00 population as well as the “8th highest rate in the nation,” when it came to positive COVID-19 tests.
“With the continued geographic expansion of COVID-19 spread, a mask mandate needs to be implemented statewide (in counties with greater than 20 cases) to decrease community transmission,” the report says. “Bars must be closed and indoor dining must be restricted in yellow and red zone counties and metro areas.”
In earlier reports dating back to Aug. 2 the task force had also recommended statewide mask action, saying bluntly in the Aug. 16 report “mask mandate needs to be implemented statewide to decrease community transmission.”
Those reports, which the state began posting online late last month, were only made public by the state after Stitt caved to outcry from officials, according to The Oklahoman.
“We're a very red state and you have the Trump administration and the White House task force that are recommending that we have a mask mandate, so I don't understand it politically,” said Dr. Dale Bratzler, the chief COVID officer for the University of Oklahoma who supports a statewide mask order. “I don't think there's any good political reason not to have a mandate. I just don't get it.”
An email seeking comment for this story from Stitt’s office was not returned this week.
Oklahoma was also highlighted as a place of concern by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis on Monday. In a scathing statement paired with the weeks of state by state reports from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the head of the select subcommittee, said “the President and his enablers kept these alarming reports private while publicly downplaying the threat to millions of Americans.”
The committee’s press release went on to note that from June 23 on Oklahoma was among 14 states in a dangerous “red zone,” category that avoided ordering masks across their respective states.
"When people are giving you guidance and you're not following it, what kind of message are you sending to your residents?” said Breea Clark, a Democrat serving as the mayor of Norman where a mask requirement is in place, told The Daily Beast. “You know, I'm asking people to wear masks, but if the governor can't follow guidance from the White House, why would my residents follow guidance from their mayor?"
Stitt’s approach has been problematic at times throughout the pandemic. In mid-March, the governor was called out for posting a photo with his family at a busy restaurant even as the coronavirus was in the early stages of causing problems in the United States. By late April and early May, he was at the forefront of Republican governors rushing to begin reopening from the pandemic. And in June, despite well-founded fears about the president holding an indoor rally, he enthusiastically embraced President Donald Trump campaigning in his state. By July, the governor announced he had tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the first governor in the nation to publicly announce a positive test. On Tuesday, Stitt donned a mask while he wasn’t speaking at the press conference, and urged people to “wash your hands, watch your distance and wear a mask.”
Some in Oklahoma, like Bixby mayor Brian Guthrie didn’t take issue with Stitt’s lack of action on a statewide mask order, with the Republican saying “I can stand behind him on his decision,” because of how the virus is impacting parts of the state differently.
And the mayor of Midwest City, where an indoor mask order is in place locally, said he could see both sides of the situation facing the governor.
“I just don't know to be honest with you, I just don't know,” Republican Matt Dukes said when asked if he wanted to see a statewide mask order. “I'm not trying to dodge the question, I just don't really know how much more effective it would be than doing it at a local jurisdictional level.”
Mask mandates, though initially resisted by Republican governors, have become more widely accepted throughout the summer. States led by conservative governors like Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi eventually conceded to statewide mask orders as the virus situations in their states grew more concerning. But even after the president publicly came around on wearing a mask in public, that messaging has become more difficult for GOP officials following the largely maskless crowd that Trump invited to the lawn of the White House for his GOP nomination speech last week.
As a part of their investigation into the guidance Oklahoma received from the Trump administration, Clyburn wrote to Stitt on July 29 that the governor “appears to be following the contradictory public messaging coming from the Administration.”
In subsequent letters to Clyburn, Stitt defended his approach emphasizing in one “we believe strongly in providing local municipalities with data that enable them to make the right decisions for their residents.”
But that deference to localities is leading to clear concern for some cities who have taken the extra step of a mask requirement, even as many others haven’t.
“The communities that are trying to be safe and protect its citizens is having an extra difficult time doing that because of the lack of participation of other cities and towns,” Anadarko mayor Kyle Eastwood said.