As Governor’s order for non-essential business closures spreads statewide, thousands request exemptions or clarification

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Update April 2, 2020, 2:05 p.m.: The morning after this story was published Wicked Sticker Tattoo parlor owner Mike Keeley told The Frontier that he received a text from the state saying his industry now does not qualify as “essential” under the Governor’s executive order. This story has been updated to include additional comments by Keeley, as well as Department of Commerce spokeswoman Leslie Blake.

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the state, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce has been inundated by thousands of requests by businesses seeking exemptions from or clarification of an executive order by Gov. Kevin Stitt that all non-essential businesses be temporarily closed to stop the spread of the disease.

Stitt amended an executive order on March 24 aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus that required all counties with known cases of the virus to temporarily close all businesses that were not considered part of the state’s critical infrastructure.

The following day, Stitt issued a six-page memorandum of businesses that were also considered essential, and included businesses such as golf courses, farmers’ markets, real estate companies and numerous others.

As of Wednesday, the Oklahoma State Department of Health had confirmed 719 cases of COVID-19 in the state, 219 hospitalizations and 30 related deaths.

At the time, that order affected 19 counties that had shown evidence of community spread of the virus, but by Wednesday, Stitt amended the executive order to include all 77 counties and extended the order to last until April 30.

“This is the right time to take additional measures here in Oklahoma,” Stitt said during a press conference Wednesday. “This means all nonessential businesses will need to alter their operations and temporarily suspend services that require social gatherings until April 30. Specific examples include businesses like gyms, movie theaters, tattoo parlors, massage parlors, barber shops, hair salons, amusement parks, performance halls, museums, restaurants and bars.”

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Asked whether the number of positive cases would be lower had the initial March 24 order extended to all counties, Stitt responded “I don’t think there is any way to speculate on that.”

Last week, the state also put up an online application system that allowed businesses to determine whether they fell into the essential category, and request exemptions or seek clarification about whether they would be required to shut down under the executive order.

As of Tuesday, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce had received between 2,700 and 2,800 requests for clarification and exemptions from scores of businesses, according to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. None of the requests for exemption have thus far been granted, said Oklahoma Department of Commerce spokeswoman Leslie Blair, though only 70 to 80 percent of the applications had been reviewed at that point.

Of those that had been reviewed, 60 to 70 percent had been deemed as falling within the categories listed in Stitt’s memorandum as essential businesses, while only 15 to 20 percent fell outside the governor’s executive order, Blair said. Those businesses will be contacted with resources during the shutdown, she said. The remaining inquiries were requests for clarifications or were not contactable, Blair said.

Businesses seeking exemptions or clarification reviewed by The Frontier ran the gamut of business types in the state, and included pet grooming services, oil and gas operators, chiropractors, vape shops, jewelers, architectural firms, construction companies, real estate companies, tanning salons, car dealerships, medical marijuana dispensaries and growers, gyms, shooting ranges, and numerous other types of operations. The Department of Commerce was unable to provide information earlier this week about which businesses that had applied or requested clarification were considered essential.

Blair said when businesses fill out the online form, the Department of Commerce responds to them to tell them whether they were essential or not.

“We weren’t approving them – just confirming they did or did not fall within essential NAICS (North American Industry Classification System) codes,” Blair said. “We based this off of what the company told us their NAICS code was, or by checking the NAICS codes for the description of their company. We also were checking our databases of companies and what they are listed as in those databases.”

Stitt’s office did not respond to written questions sent to his office by The Frontier on the state’s essential business application program.

Many of the small business owners who contacted the state requesting exemptions were small business owners who said having to shut down would be devastating to their livelihood, the applications show.

Michael Keeley, owner of Wicked Sticker Tattoo in Del City, said he was given a message from the state certifying his tattoo shop as an essential business after putting in his application. Keeley told The Frontier he does not take walk-ins and limits the number of people who can be in the shop to less than 10. And though he has gotten some negative reactions from some who feel he should close his doors, doing so would be financially devastating.

“If we close we will lose everything our business, home, autos, everything and I have 2 kids, please don’t do this to me,” Keeley wrote in his application to the Department of Commerce. “I’m 59 and I can’t start over now. I understand the situation but being as I am so small and don’t have anyone but me working please allow me to continue to work as a private art studio please!”

On the morning after this story was originally published, Keeley told The Frontier he received a text message from the Department of Commerce stating his industry was not considered essential under Stitt’s executive order.

Blair told The Frontier that Keeley had previously been sent a message saying his industry qualified as essential by mistake, and that the Department of Commerce  had corrected the issue.

“We were trying to respond to thousands of requests in a timely manner,” Blair said. “We will be reviewing all submissions to ensure only those essential businesses received confirmation.”

A screengrab of the text message sent March 27 by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce to Del City tattoo parlor owner Michael Keeley stating his business fell into the “essential” category of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s March 25 executive memorandum. Courtesy/Michael Keeley.
A screengrab of the text message sent Thursday morning by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce to Del City tattoo parlor owner Michael Keeley stating his business does not qualify as “essential” under Gov. Kevin Stitt’s March 25 executive memorandum. Courtesy/Michael Keeley.

Keeley, who moved to Oklahoma from Arizona where he owned a tattoo parlor, said he had just invested most of his money into the business, and if he is forced to close, he doesn’t know what he will do.

“I’m toast now. I’m ruined. I’m fucking ruined. I have no money,” Keeley said. “You’re not going to put my kids on the fucking street. And then what? People can still go play golf and buy dildos at (neighboring adult toy and lingerie shop) Christie’s Toybox? That’s essential? It’s bullshit.”

The Frontier confirmed Thursday that Christie’s Toybox in Del City remained open.

Other small businesses owners were not so lucky. April Myrick at Capelli’s Salon in Tulsa County said her business was not granted an exemption, though she takes precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“While I am shutdown my landlord doesn’t care and still makes me pay my rent and I am still responsible for my bills at the shop, not to mention my kids and things required to pay for my mortgage and bills at home,” Myrick wrote in her application.

Other businesses, such as Totally Tan in Tulsa and Broken Arrow, received letters from the state identifying them as essential businesses, but later decided to close anyway.

“We got a message saying we were deemed essential, but we went ahead and decided to close even though we were deemed essential just because of the President extending it to the 30th and both the cities of Tulsa and Broken Arrow decided to do the stay at home and we just felt like maybe it would be better for our customers, staff and community to go ahead and close,” said Sabrina McClure, owner of Totally Tan.

A message posted by Totally Tan on its Facebook page. Though it was granted essential business status, it later decided to close.

The language of the executive order was so broad, it was difficult to tell whether her business was essential or not, McClure said.

“Originally, when we applied, I felt like it was almost contradicting on some of the things they were saying,” McClure said, “so I thought we have some things that are essential to some people and we were abiding by the less than 10 people, and people going to private rooms and using hospital grade sanitizer, so I felt like it was worth it to try and apply. But now that it’s getting so bad, I just want to keep everybody safe.”

Other businesses were initially told they were essential, only to receive an email days later telling them they were not, said Norma Poe, owner of All Paws Grooming in Oklahoma County.

After putting in her application, Poe said, she received a text message saying she was clear to work. But a couple of days ago, she received an email telling her she was not.

Poe, a mother of four who just purchased a house, said the impact of having to stay closed until April 30 could sink her business, and she has had some clients go to another mobile dog grooming service that is still operating, despite the executive order.

“Everything I’ve worked for is down the drain. I don’t have the credit or knowledge to fill out the application for the (Small Business Administration) loan or anything like that,” Poe said. “I don’t have anybody to help me. I’ve been doing this on my own. So my little business that I’ve built up is gone.”

Blair told The Frontier that pet groomers qualified when combined with veterinary services or pet stores, but not if they were stand alone. Any stand-alone pet groomer should have received a follow up message stating that they did not fall within the essential category, she said.

The Oklahoma Department of Commerce has sent a proposal to Stitt that would provide some small businesses with emergency grant funds during the crisis, said Sean Kouplen, secretary of commerce and workforce development, during a conference call on Wednesday. However, the details have yet to be finalized, he said.

“Our state constitution says we cannot loan money or guarantee loans,” Kouplen said. “It’s very, very restrictive. It’s the constitution, so there’s not much we can do about that. But we’re trying to weave around and I think we’ve figured out a way we can provide real quick grants to our smallest businesses who were impacted by this.”

The department is also providing information about Small Business Administration disaster loans during conference calls at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Kouplen said, and is encouraging businesses and many nonprofits to apply for Payroll Protection Program funds as well.

Oklahoma City and Tulsa are also offering small businesses funds to help offset the losses brought about as the result of the measures put in place to fight the spread of COVID-19. Oklahoma City approved a $5.5 million small business package, while Tulsa is offering $1.1 million in no-interest loans to small businesses through the Tulsa Development Authority.

During a press conference Wednesday, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, who also extended his ‘shelter in place’ emergency proclamation until April 30, praised small businesses in the city who have “sacrificed tremendously to save lives in our city,” but cautioned that individuals and businesses should not try and look for loopholes to gather or stay open.

“I would ask we not try to find the grey areas here or what loopholes there are that we can go through on this. This isn’t put in place lightly. This is put in place to protect the lives of people you care about in this community.”

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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