As Oklahomans grapple with what will happen as cities and towns across the state begin reopening their economies as early as this week, it’s clear that Gov. Kevin Stitt has gotten his way.
Mayors David Holt, of Oklahoma City, and GT Bynum, of Tulsa, each held press conferences Friday saying that while they may disagree with Stitt’s decision to start reopening some businesses, they will somewhat reluctantly fall in line.
Stitt announced on Wednesday initial steps to reopen the state’s economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, steps he said would be rolled out in three phases, with each one being implemented only as data indicates the state can safely ease more restrictions.
“Let me be clear: we will do this safely, responsibly and based on the data in our state,” Stitt said.
Stitt’s plan was based on White House guidelines that were released last week, which say governors should use a three-phase system to reopen businesses and relax social distancing measures. Though health professionals said the federal guidelines were good, they didn’t believe Oklahoma had met the requirements.
Starting Friday, personal care businesses such as hair salons, spas and barbers could reopen by appointment only in cities that didn’t have their own restrictions in place. Phase one of Stitt’s plan begins May 1 when restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, sporting venues and places of worship can open with “strict” social distancing and sanitation protocols in place. Bars will remain closed.
The announcements from the mayors came as the state surpassed 3,100 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and reached 188 deaths.
Bynum, who spoke Friday afternoon, did not sound like a man eager to fall in line with Stitt’s order. He referred to any theoretical attempt Tulsa might make at maintaining stricter orders while nearby communities reopen as “futile,” said Tulsans “don’t get that choice” of when to reopen their economy, and said Tulsans “weren’t allowed” time to have their local infection numbers match federal guidelines for reopening.
He also appeared to offer some perhaps veiled complaints directed at Stitt, saying that while state numbers may line up with federal reopening guidelines, it was only decisive early action by larger cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Norman that made that possible. All three cities enacted strict shelter in place orders well ahead of Stitt’s “Safer at Home” order.
Bynum also said that while he’s thankful for Stitt’s writing of uniform guidance for the entire state, an “absence of action by state government” created the “patchwork” of rules across Oklahoma that have existed for more than a month.
“Having a uniform standard would have been better from the start, and I’m thankful that we’ll have one moving forward,” Bynum said.
Holt struck a similar tone during a news conference held shortly after Bynum’s.
“Today, we face a bit of a crossroads,” Holt said. “Not because of any changes in the virus — it’s still here. It’s still capable of great harm. It doesn’t know the dates on the calendar. But external factors dictate that we have reached a point as a people where we have to make some decisions.”
On one hand, Holt said, there is no vaccine or proven treatment for the virus. In the absence of those, May 1 won’t feel any different than would easing restrictions in August or November. On the other hand, the city can’t shelter in place for two years, he said.
“I’ve said from the beginning of this odyssey: all we have are bad options,” Holt said. “We’re just trying to muddle through and pick the least worst.”
Charlie Hannema, Stitt’s chief of communications, said in an email that Stitt felt the reopening plan was “supported by data.”
“The governor feels confident (Oklahoma) mayors will see that the data supports their cities to safely begin Phase 1 on May 1. Our team is happy to provide whatever data we have available to mayors who may need it.”
Bynum told The Frontier he and Holt had been told by Stitt of the reopening plan ahead of time, and Bynum said he told the governor that he liked the statewide guidelines, but that “we needed more time in Tulsa to reach the White House gating criteria.”
Those guidelines require states to see a 14-day downward trajectory in influenza-like illnesses and in COVID-like cases. Before starting phased opening governors must ensure their state has seen either a downward trajectory of documented cases or a drop in positive tests as a percent of total tests within a two-week period.
Hospitals must be able to treat patients without crisis care and have a robust testing program for at-risk health care workers, including emerging antibody testing.
Tulsa, Bynum said, has not seen a decrease in positive cases. Rather, he said, the city is trending upwards.
Tulsa Health Department executive director Bruce Dart said Tulsa uses four-day rolling numbers to get an accurate read on local positive tests, and said he agreed with Bynum that it was “too early” for Tulsa to safely reopen.
“We’re not seeing a decrease in our daily test numbers,” Dart said. “We’re testing more, as I said, and we expect to see positive results, but our positive results are trending in the wrong direction. So our preference would be that we actually waited.
“But as (Bynum) said, we don’t exist in a bubble.”
Dart said his preference would be to have more time to both conduct more tests as well as evaluate the results.
“But we don’t really have that time,” he said.
Bynum said it would be unfair of him to keep workers unemployed in Tulsa while other nearby locales reopened and “employees for 100 miles around us are getting to go to work and contracting viruses and bringing them to our community. That’s not fair to Tulsans.”
Holt said that in Oklahoma City, local leaders have been doing their best to find a solution that considers the economy, but also prioritizes life, and preventing transmission and death.
However, there is a deadline looming on April 30 when city and state proclamations on closures expire. The governor’s new policies go into effect the following day.
And even though Holt said those policies don’t preclude the city’s, they do complicate its response. If Oklahoma City were to maintain closures on nonessential businesses, it would create a patchwork of regulations across the metro area. In fact, neighboring Moore and Yukon reopened some businesses Friday.
“Not being able to eat in a restaurant on one corner of an intersection but being able to eat on another corner is not going to save lives,” Holt said.
Gatherings of more than 10 people will remain prohibited, and Holt encouraged people to continue to social distance, wear masks and public and wash their hands.
The mayor said he would not have picked May 1 to begin easing restrictions. However, the city did meet White House criteria to begin the first phase of opening the economy, he said. Under one requirement, cities must have a 14-day downward trajectory of COVID-like cases, and Holt said the city met it “by the skin of our teeth.”
Oklahoma City hospitals are able to treat patients without crisis care and the city has the ability to test vulnerable health care workers, Holt said.
But if there is a “dramatic” change in infection, hospitalization or death rates within the city in the next week, Holt will reevaluate going along with the state’s policies on easing restrictions May 1.
“If we show signs of becoming a hotspot I will not hesitate to act aggressively as I did not hesitate before,” Holt said. “I know sometimes it can feel like you’re alone and you wonder if your leaders prioritize your life. Well I do.”
Bynum said that Stitt had “given his word” that if they detect a spike in cases that they will halt rollbacks and will respond accordingly. Local hospitals, Bynum said, had assured him of their ability to handle an increase in positive cases as well.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m asking until May 1 to roll back our own orders and fall in line with the state,” Bynum said. “The governor said he wanted the opportunity to have this first round of rollbacks that are occuring today in a lot of communities around the state of Oklahoma to see what kind of impact that had from a case standpoint, and I want to give the state a week of looking at that kind of data to make sure that they’re 100 percent confident that May 1 is the time to be moving forward with the further part of Phase 1 under their plan.”
Bynum also urged Tulsans to continue the same conduct they’ve been utilizing during the first months of the pandemic even as shops open up. He said to continue to maintain social distance, work from home if possible, and don’t travel unless essential.
Bynum asked Tulsans to continue wearing masks, not out of fear, but “as a sign of respect to our neighbors that we may be carrying the virus without knowing it and we’re wearing a mask so that we can help reduce our ability to contaminate others.”