In a phone call with mayors, city managers and emergency management personnel across Oklahoma on Monday, Gov. Kevin Stitt restated his belief that he wanted it to be “business as usual” unless you have a compromised immune system or are an older person who is more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus.
By Tuesday, Stitt had reversed course, saying during a press conference that he “strongly recommended” following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that advised avoiding areas with groups of more than 10 people, avoiding discretionary travel and using pickup options to “continue supporting our restaurants.”
During the phone call Monday with mayors and city managers, Stitt said that he and his family “are continuing to go out to restaurants and eat,” Norman Mayor Breea Clark told The Frontier on Tuesday.
“He said he’s concerned about our cities because we’re so reliant on sales tax,” Clark said. “I get where he’s coming from because it’s like please don’t kill our businesses, but pick one, is this about people or money?”
Others who were on the phone call, speaking on background, confirmed Clark’s account of the phone call.
Stitt had been criticized recently for apparently taking two trips last weekend to restaurants, with critics saying he was disregarding health official warnings about going out in public around large groups.
On Saturday Stitt tweeted from The Collective OKC, an Oklahoma City food hall, posting a picture of him and two of his sons.
“Eating with my kids and all my fellow Oklahomans at the @CollectiveOKC,” he tweeted. “It’s packed tonight! #supportlocal #OklaProud”
Despite criticism, he apparently traveled to another Oklahoma City restaurant on Sunday. An employee at Gabriella’s Italian Grill and Pizzeria posted a series of pictures on Facebook of Stitt at the restaurant, shaking hands and huddling for group pictures.
Both Stitt’s tweet and the Facebook post have been deleted. Stitt spokesman Charlie Hannema defended the governor’s actions, issuing a statement Sunday saying that Stitt felt “it’s important that if you’re healthy and not at high risk, (you should) support our local businesses as best we can and keep living life.”
There were at least 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma as of Tuesday morning, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Despite his call to keep supporting restaurants, the option for Oklahomans to eat out may be out of Stitt’s hands. Both Oklahoma City and Tulsa on Tuesday announced a closure of bars and restaurants, allowing for takeout only. More cities are expected to make similar proclamations.
Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum said his decision closing bars and restaurants, as well as other locations like movie theaters and gyms, was a hard one.
“I hate the impact it will have,” Bynum said, later adding that “the impact of spreading the virus and overloading our health care system is a worse option.
“There are only decisions about which options would do the least harm. This is the option that does the least harm to health and safety.”
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, who, like Stitt, faced criticism over the weekend after tweeting from an Oklahoma City restaurant, followed course Tuesday afternoon, ordering a similar ban on bars and restaurants.
Holt’s proclamation will last until at least April 12. Bynum’s order lasts indefinitely.
Monday’s phone call between Stitt, mayors and city managers was facilitated by the Oklahoma Municipal League. Mike Fina, the OML executive director, said the governor’s office reached out to the OML on Sunday in order to have a “listen and learn session.”
“The governor basically walked us through (on the phone call) what the state’s response would be and gave us some information he’d learned from a phone call he’d been on with some other governors across the country,” Fina said.
“He wanted to make sure that the municipalities across Oklahoma heard from him,” Fina said of Stitt.
Fina said there were 600-700 people on the phone call, a number that may have hindered the question and answer part of the phone call. Clark said the call lasted about 20-30 minutes and only a handful of questions — which had to be texted in — were answered.
“I was very encouraged to get the email to participate in the call,” Clark said. “But I was discouraged because I felt it answered nothing.”
Clark said she was hoping for guidance from Stitt on what role cities should play moving forward in terms of business closures or of setting aside a special period each day for the elderly to grocery shop.
Instead, she said, Stitt made some recommendations but ended it there.
“Are these recommendations that I’m supposed to carry out, or will the state do it?” Clark asked. “What do we do about our first responders, or our open meetings? We’ve tried to limit social contact during open meetings by using caution tape, but we have to have the meetings. Can we keep people away? Keep them separated? I know many of us had these questions and left feeling like they were unanswered.”
Fina said he had set up an email address for local municipalities to connect with the governor’s office.
“More than anything else we’re correcting a lot of misunderstandings and bad information,” Fina said. People make assumptions and assumptions become gospel and we’re trying to reverse that.”