Multiplication of Oklahoma’s number of COVID-19 cases could have been slowed if only the state’s leadership began to treat the virus seriously instead of projecting a pioneer spirit, an idea that Oklahoma’s hardscrabble people could never be felled by a microscopic virus.
But, that was exactly what happened.
Only two weeks ago, Gov. Kevin Stitt posted a photo of himself and his children on Twitter saying, “Eating with my kids and all my fellow Oklahomans at the @CollectiveOKC. It’s packed tonight! #supportlocal #OklaProud.”
Stitt got flash-fried by the national press and late-night comedians and he deleted the post, apparently thinking no one would think to screen-grab such disregard for public safety, and the next day he declared a state of emergency.
OpinionFrom George Lang, our lead opinion columnist
On May 25, Stitt issued an executive memorandum on the types of businesses that could remain open while COVID-19 continued to spread throughout Oklahoma communities. Nearly every business and industry in Oklahoma was exempt and declared essential.
The few businesses unable to pass through this six-page loophole included hair salons, gyms, theaters, massage parlors, and tattoo parlors.
Furthermore, the “safer at home” order Stitt issued on March 28 is mealy, inexact language compared to “shelter in place.”
Local leadership contrast
Other leaders have fared far better, including Oklahoma City mayor David Holt.
On March 14, the same day Stitt published his infamous tweet from The Collective OKC, Holt was a few blocks away, posting about his dinner at Nashbird and his brownie from Katiebugs Sips and Sweets.
Statewide power vacuum
Statewide, there is an evident power vacuum, and most of it begins with Stitt and his lack of concrete resolve regarding COVID-19.
On March 26, a day he declared a “statewide day of prayer,” Stitt was part of an evangelical program broadcast on most Oklahoma television stations called “Let Hope Rise: Together in Prayer for Oklahoma,” featuring entirely Christian messaging from Stitt and Pastor Michael Todd of Tulsa’s Transformation Church.
Roberta Clark, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City, told The Oklahoman that the hour-long broadcast “excluded many Oklahomans,” and she is right.
There is nothing wrong with prayer, except when it speaks to only one state-recognized religion and it is directed at a virus without a massive dose of medical science on hand.
Oklahoma is not a theocracy. By playing Joel Osteen in every Oklahoma media market, he missed an opportunity to spend 60 minutes providing lifesaving information to those same people.
And they need it.
On March 28, the same day Holt issued the “shelter-in-place” order for Oklahoma City, a story appeared on the Reuters news service describing an entirely different situation in one of Oklahoma’s most isolated towns.
In the Texas County seat of Guymon, a town of 11,500 people, the local government had not fully adopted the safety measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Church services went on as usual and people ate in the local restaurants.
The general sentiment from business owners and residents was that Guymon was too far away from surrounding mid-sized cities for COVID-19 to visit their town, and prayer would protect them from the pandemic.
Within a few days of the Reuters story hitting the wires, Texas County reported its first case. There are 25 total beds in Guymon’s Memorial Hospital of Texas County Authority, and the next-closest hospital is another 25-bed facility in Shattuck, nearly two hours away.
Because of a pervasive and ill-advised sense of imperviousness in that isolated town, not to mention only having 25 beds to serve more than 20,000 residents of Texas County, Guymon needed irrefutable facts and rock-ribbed leadership from Stitt, but those never arrived.
It would still be tragic if it were only Guymon, but according to Oklahoma Watch, mayors of Stillwell, Watonga, and Henryetta, among others, are taking a laissez-faire, wait-and-see approach to the virus, not placing enforceable restrictions on area businesses like restaurants and bars.
And then there’s Sheriff Chris West of Canadian County, who seems eager to become Oklahoma’s Joe Arpaio.
In a March 13 Facebook post, West posited that “like the fake Russian collusion investigation, mueller (sic) report and bogus impeachment hoax all failed, this Corona (sic) thing which has been ramped up by the Dems and fake news will pass and President Trump will come out even stronger than ever.”
There is nothing partisan about COVID-19, but for every person making fun of West for his wrongheaded views on epidemiology, there are many people who saw that post (before West locked down his account) and saw an authority figure telling it like he sees it.
I don’t suppose West visited the family of the person who died in his county late last month just to let them know that COVID-19 was “fake news.”
And I’m sure the 19 people in Canadian County who have tested positive for coronavirus want to know about that secret plot by Democrats to scare them about a pandemic that will “pass.”
I do wonder if West’s Feb. 20 declaration that Canadian County is a “Second Amendment sanctuary county” is helping his constituents defend themselves from all enemies — foreign, domestic and microscopic.
“Not terribly serious”
Every one of Oklahoma’s 77 counties needs better examples of leadership than this, but it starts at the top. In that same Oklahoma Watch article, Stillwell mayor Jean Ann Wright said that Stitt’s social media post from Collective OKC is still impacting how local leaders approach COVID-19.
“I feel that perhaps he is where Trump was for a while, not being terribly serious about things, and he’s starting to kick it into gear but not fast enough,” she said.
Governors attending the National Governors Association’s Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. were given a briefing by President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force on Feb. 9.
More than a month later, Stitt was still downplaying COVID-19 by taking selfies with his family while dining in Midtown.
That is a textbook example of “not fast enough.”
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