On a day when Oklahoma recorded the highest number of new daily COVID-19 cases since January and hospitalizations continued to spike, Gov. Kevin Stitt was largely silent about the worsening pandemic on Thursday at his State of the State address to the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Outside of a few swipes at cities and states that shut down during the pandemic last year, Stitt skirted the topic of COVID-19, instead focusing on business growth in the state and his social media war with the animal rights group PETA.
During a 20-minute speech in Tulsa, Stitt called the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision Oklahoma’s “most pressing” issue. The 2020 ruling found that Congress never dismantled Indian reservations for the Five Civilized Tribes that existed in Oklahoma before statehood and that much of the eastern part of the state is Indian country.
The state of Oklahoma lacks jurisdiction to prosecute many crimes on Indian land and the task now falls to tribal courts and federal prosecutors. The ruling has challenged scores of criminal convictions in the state and many cases now have to be retried in federal court.
Oklahoma has filed an application with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking to overturn the ruling.
In response to Stitt’s speech, the Muscogee Nation on Thursday evening released a lengthy statement calling his remarks on McGirt “a harmful lie,” saying the decision “is not the biggest problem or threat to Oklahoma.”
“For a very real threat to Oklahoma, no one needs to look further than the effects of COVID-19,” the statement said. “We and other tribes are working to be a part of that solution – with free-to-all vaccination clinics, contributions of masks for schools and by implementing access and distancing measures in our own facilities to protect everyone’s health.”
Stitt has remained largely silent on COVID-19’s toll on Oklahoma since March, when he held his last news conference on the pandemic.
Instead, the governor spoke on Thursday about Oklahoma’s pro-business policies and the crisis in Afghanistan. He criticized city leaders and governors in other states for enacting policies that infringed on what he vaguely described as individual liberties, but made no direct mention of mask or vaccine mandates.
“There are governors in other states who believe in sacrificing freedoms by mandating and controlling their citizens,” Stitt said. “Let me tell you, bureaucrats in Washington D.C. don’t know what’s best for us. And let me assure you, I will always trust Oklahomans to do the right thing.
“And as governor, I will never sacrifice our individual liberties for any price.”
Stitt’s speech comes in the midst of a continuing surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Oklahoma. Hospitals are struggling with bed capacity and are managing a number of patients not seen since January.
Oklahoma reported 4,152 new cases on Thursday, and more than 1,600 people were hospitalized for COVID-19.
As of Thursday, 9,044 Oklahomans had died from COVID-19, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provisional data. About 43 percent of Oklahomans are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Throughout the pandemic, Stitt has touted that Oklahoma started its reopening plan ahead of most states in April 2020 while other states enacted mask mandates, lockdowns and other restrictions.
Last year, the governor even coined the word “covantage,” a combination of the words “COVID” and “advantage” to illustrate how Oklahoma might benefit from reopening before other states.
On Thursday, Stitt jokingly thanked California Gov. Gavin Newsom and “other shutdown states” for Oklahoma’s economic development.
“California's liberal policies and endless regulations have made Oklahoma ground zero for business CEOs,” he said.
In June, the electric car company Canoo announced it would build a manufacturing facility in Pryor. However, contracts have yet to be signed, according to The Oklahoman. Oklahoma has the eighth lowest unemployment rate in the nation, according to federal data cited by Stitt.
A chamber board member asked the governor what he was doing to help hospitals during a Q&A after his speech, but Stitt declined to take questions from reporters.
Stitt thanked nurses and doctors and noted that he signed emergency rules to allow hospitals to expand bed capacity. He also said the state has stockpiled protective equipment for health care workers. A staffing shortage has been the main issue for healthcare facilities, Stitt said, but he’s been in touch with federal agencies in an effort to secure more resources.
Oklahoma’s current COVID-19 surge is different from past ones because the state has more resources to combat the virus, such as protective gear for health care facilities, medical treatments and vaccinations, said Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye.
“Most of all, we have treatments for our most vulnerable population,” Frye told reporters during a virtual news conference on Thursday afternoon.
Some Democratic lawmakers have been critical that the governor hasn’t held a news conference to address the pandemic in the past five months.
“In his speech, he didn’t mention the 7,800 Oklahomans we have lost to COVID nor did he mention COVID at all. There was no plea to citizens to get vaccinated or any plan to protect the voters who elected him,” Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, said in a news release after Stitt’s speech.
“Instead, the Governor chose to show unnecessary hostility toward our state’s oldest allies, the sovereign tribal nations. In a time that we should be working together, the Governor continues to use national talking points and political rhetoric to divide Oklahomans.”