Amid pandemic, Stitt believes ‘personal responsibility’ will save the state

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Gov. Kevin Stitt arrives at a media conference on March 22. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Gov. Kevin Stitt felt like he had answered the question multiple times and became visibly irritated when another reporter asked why he wasn’t doing more to require Oklahomans to shelter in their homes as a pandemic was sweeping across the state. 

He flashed a smirk in an attempt to hide his frustration and repeated a version of the phrase he had already delivered at least four times. 

“I am a realist in the fact that you can make all these shelters at home (rules), but ultimately it comes back to personal responsibility,” Stitt said during a virtual media conference on Wednesday. 

Stitt didn’t downplay the severity of COVID-19; he said the next few weeks “are going to be critical in Oklahoma,” he acknowledged the number of positive cases is likely in the thousands and that testing needed to significantly increase. By the end of the week he was imploring county health departments to test anyone who presented with symptoms. 

But the first-term governor did downplay his own power in making Oklahomans adhere to orders of staying at home and avoiding nonessential trips out of the house.  

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“This is about personal responsibility, I think we’ve done what we should do,” Stitt said.

At least 38 states have shelter in home orders that require residents to remain home except when buying food, seeking medical care and a few other essential tasks. 

On March 24, Stitt issued a “safer at home” order that the state’s “vulnerable population” remain at home. He also ordered the closure of non essential businesses in the 19 counties with confirmed COVID-19 cases, adding more counties as new cases were found.

One week later positive cases were found in 48 counties, the state’s total had nearly tripled and Stitt extended his order to close non essential businesses to all counties. 

“I don’t think there is any way to speculate on that,” Stitt said when asked if including all counties in his original order would have slowed the spread. 

Stitt has been criticized for not doing more to require Oklahomans to remain at home and last week 18 health organizations submitted a letter claiming his “measures are not enough.”

Some have seen his stance as an attempt to please those seeking strong action, while not angering those who believe the pandemic is overblown and the response an infringement of personal rights. 

Clumsy answers at recent media conferences have also distracted from his orders, which includes a ban on gatherings of 10 or more. 

“He doesn’t know how to give you a political answer to a question because he never learned how to do that,” said Cam Savage, who was the lead consultant on Stitt’s 2018 campaign. 

Savage rejected the idea that Stitt is trying to please a political base and said the governor approaches the job with a belief the government can help, but it can’t do everything. 

While Stitt may lack a political worldview, his mantra of fighting the virus through “personal responsibility” is in line with his own history. 

While running for governor he often told the story of him taking $1,000 and growing it into a nationwide mortgage company. 

When he announced his own version of Medicaid expansion earlier this year, Stitt said it included “personal-responsibility mechanisms” for new enrollees that will help individuals lead their way back to private health insurance.  

Last year, Stitt pointed to personal responsibility as one of the most important factors in improving health outcomes. 

“Personal responsibility is a big part of health in our state and we are not the most active state,” Stitt said after the 2019 Memorial Marathon

While speaking to a group of private school students in Tulsa earlier this year, Stitt encouraged them to “put God first, (and) take personal responsibility.” 

Putting the onus on personal responsibility more than government may be a central Republican trope, but some believe a pandemic warrants a different philosophy. 

“In a crisis you may need to have some big government,” said Ervin Yen, a medical doctor and former Republican member of the state Senate. 

“Our constitution has been quite clear that public health and public safety can trump freedom, that is quite clear to me, even as a Republican.”

Some Oklahoma mayors have gone further to limit the movement of residents, claiming they are acting without any guidance from the state. 

“Every mayor is on their own to figure out what will work, there is little guidance from states and federal government on specific community issues as they are dealing with their own issues,” said Lawton Mayor Stan Booker, who announced a shelter in place order for his city this week. 

Two days later, the Lawton city council approved a curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., and will now require residents to carry a letter from an employer stating they are essential. 

Norman Mayor Breea Clark, one of the state’s most progressive mayors who was the first to issue a shelter at home order, has been critical of the state’s response.

“I seriously cannot wrap my head around what is wrong with our state leadership,” Clark tweeted when it was announced hotels would remain open as essential businesses.

The mayors of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, both Republicans, have issued their own shelter in place orders and have been ahead of the governor on multiple occasions. 

In a recent column for the New York Times, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum wrote about the tension of infringing on personal rights in such a Republican state. 

“In the end, love of neighbor is more important at a local level than political party or ideology,” Bynum wrote. 

Stitt has taken steps to streamline operations among the different county health departments across the state, allowed first responders to know what addresses are home to a known case of COVID-19 and this week pleaded with doctors to loosen their standards for who should get tested in an effort to significantly increase testing across the state. 

While he hasn’t ordered Oklahomans to remain home, he said his order to close non essential businesses across the state “practically did the same thing that most other states have done.” 

“But ultimately this is about personal responsibility,” Stitt said at another media conference Thursday. “It’s up to all of us, it’s about personal responsibility, the social distancing that we need to continue, to really flatten this curve.”

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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