Pointing to a downward trend in new cases of the novel coronavirus and people hospitalized with the disease, Gov. Kevin Stitt on Wednesday announced initial steps to reopen the state’s economy amid the pandemic, including allowing some businesses to open in the coming days.

Stitt also said that starting late next week, restaurant dining rooms, movie theaters, gyms and places of worship can open statewide as long as they adhere to “strict” social distancing and sanitation guidelines.

During a news conference at the state Capitol, the governor said the plan to reopen businesses 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.

Some Democrats think it’s too soon to ease restrictions, while many Republicans have increasingly pushed for the governor and his task force to start making moves to reopen the state’s economy. Meanwhile, some medical groups were critical of the plan.

Following Stitt’s announcement, House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) said the governor’s decision came from a “place of fear.” The state has lacked proper testing and tracing of the virus, Virgin said, and Stitt should hold off on decisions until there is better data.

“The guidance we are receiving from the federal government is we should be seeing a decrease of cases in 14 days before we start opening up, and we don’t see that yet, so we don’t meet that standard,” she said. “We are not ready to reopen.”

Oklahoma State Medical Association President Dr. George Monks released a statement that was critical of the plan.

“We are concerned Gov. Stitt’s plan to re-open the state is hasty at best,” he said. “Even without widespread testing, Oklahoma has seen an ongoing growth in the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the past week alone.

“Oklahoma’s physicians nurses and other health care workers continue to care for those who are ill from this savage disease. To increase the danger of widespread infection by opening prematurely not only discounts their efforts, but also the sacrifices made by their loved ones.”

A leading model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington has updated its projections for Oklahoma several times. The model earlier this month estimated 549 deaths by May 1 and a total of 965 deaths by August 1. The model currently shows the state hit its peak of hospitalizations on Wednesday and its peak of daily deaths on April 7 when there were 16.

It now estimates 223 people will have died by May 1 and a total of 306 deaths by August 1.

The IHME model, which assumes measures remain in place until May 1, projects that at least four states could ease social distancing restrictions as early as May 4. But a handful of other states, including Oklahoma, should hold off until mid-June.

Last week, Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development Sean Kouplen said there had been a “healthy tug-of-war” among Stitt’s advisers between those who want businesses immediately reopened and health experts who want to wait before relaxing the measures put in place to stop the spread of the disease.

Kouplen said on Wednesday he and about a dozen other government and business leaders from around the state had been doing “roughly 24-hour-per-day work on this for the last few days” in order to come up with a reopening plan. The plan submitted by the “Bounce Back Task Force” was finalized Tuesday afternoon.

“We feel like we have put together a fantastic plan,” Kouplen said prior to Stitt’s announcement.

Stitt’s announcement of the three-phase plan came almost a week after President Donald Trump held a call with governors to discuss broad guidelines to ease social distancing measures to reopen states.

Starting Friday, personal care businesses in cities and towns without their own restrictions can open by appointment only. Mayors of Norman, Tulsa and Oklahoma City said after the announcement they will not allow shuttered businesses to open that soon.

Phase one of the 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.

Staff and volunteers at places of worship should wear masks, and should not serve coffee or food, Stitt said. Facilities should sanitize between services and nursery areas should remain closed.

During phase one the governor’s safer-at-home order, which requires vulnerable populations to remain home, stays in effect and visitations to senior living centers are prohibited.

If hospitalization and infection rates are at a “manageable” level for 14 days, the state will implement phase two of the plan, with a goal of entering that phase by May 15.

Once the state reaches that step organized sports activities can reopen under “proper” protocols, bars can open with diminished standing room occupancy, and funerals and weddings with more than 10 people may resume with social distancing.

If rates continue to be manageable for another two weeks, the state will go into phase three. Stitt said more details on that stage would be released during phase two.

The governor said it’s imperative people continue to practice social distancing and that they wear a mask when in public, per CDC guidelines.

“We will continue to watch the data each day and we will pull back if we need to,” Stitt said of reopening the state’s economy.

Stitt’s announcements came as Oklahoma recorded almost 2,900 known cases of COVID-19, including at least 170 deaths.

Calls to reopen
Conservative groups have called on states and cities to reopen businesses, holding protests across the county, including last week in Oklahoma City. Most of the demonstrations have been organized by groups and individuals with connections to the Trump administration.

Last week’s demonstrations at the state Capitol and Oklahoma City City Hall were organized in part by Broken Arrow residents Lori Gracy, business consultant, and Rhonda Vuillemont-Smith, a Broken Arrow business owner who is also president and founder of the conservative Tulsa 9.12 Project and a member of the FreedomWorks activist advisory council.

The Oklahoma State Capitol BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier

The Oklahoma State Capitol BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier

In Mid-March, Gracy and Vuillemont-Smith were vocal opponents against the city of Broken Arrow putting restrictions on private businesses in response to the spread of COVID-19. Though the city at first refused to put restrictions on businesses, it later reversed course.

During a Broken Arrow City Council meeting in March, Vuillemont-Smith told council members that keeping Broken Arrow businesses open after Tulsa had issued an order shutting down some of its businesses might be profitable.

“I think it (a business shutdown) would be very detrimental to Broken Arrow,” Vuillemont-Smith said. “I think we can shine now. We always shine, but I think that we can bring people in that maybe might get acquainted with some of our businesses that might not have otherwise because they go to Tulsa.”

Last week’s rally at the Capitol was also organized by Oklahoma City conservative activist and co-chair of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign in Oklahoma, Carol Hefner.

For weeks the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank in Oklahoma City, has published articles downplaying the significance of the coronavirus and disputing claims that closing businesses is an effective way of slowing the spread of the virus.

“It is time to begin safely reopening Oklahoma,” said OCPA president Jonathan Small, who said Wednesday his organization has collected 10,000 signaures from Oklahomans supporting an immediate reopening of most businesses.

Small issued a media release that praised Stitt’s leadership shortly after the Governor’s announcement on Wednesday.

“As Oklahoma re-opens, it is important to continue safety measures to reduce viral spread. At the same time, the state should continue lifting oppressive regulations to empower Oklahomans while also mitigating risks,” Small said. “For tens of thousands of Oklahomans, their lives, health and livelihoods have already been negatively impacted by these shutdowns. By taking this first step to begin reopening Oklahoma, Governor Stitt has helped limit these negative impacts and ensured that Oklahoma has a brighter future.”

Meanwhile, other groups have pushed against reopening, and early on criticized Stitt for not putting more measures in place to stop the spread of COVID-19.

After Stitt’s announcement on Wednesday, the group Save Our State said in a media release that it was “deeply disappointed in the governor’s blatant failure to proactively manage the COVID-19 crisis in our state. Today’s decision to roll back social distancing measures by re-opening non-essential businesses beginning in just 2 days is counter to White House guidelines as Oklahoma’s new daily cases are not on a ‘downward trajectory.’”