5 minute read
Opinion
George Lang is the opinion writer for Free Press. (Brett Dickerson/Okla City Free Press)

Oklahoma generally makes national news when state politicians attempt to abridge citizens’ rights under the guise of religious freedom bills or for their embarrassing affection for the National Rifle Association. But Gov. Kevin Stitt’s unforced error of posting his family enjoying a local food court during a pandemic was not just embarrassing. It was grossly irresponsible.

At a time when nearly every world leader is cautioning citizens to wash hands and practice social distancing during the spread of COVID-19, Stitt decided to be a business booster, posting and boasting about his feckless disregard for public safety on social media.

“Eating with my kids and all my fellow Oklahomans at the @CollectiveOKC. It’s packed tonight! #supportlocal #OklaProud,” read the tweet, posted just before 8 p.m. Saturday, March 14.

Screen capture of Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt’s tweet March 14, 2020.

For the record, “all my fellow Oklahomans” were not there, and plenty were appalled at Stitt’s poor leadership. Local, state, and national outrage materialized quickly over Stitt’s brazen disregard for public health. Stitt deleted the tweet once it became obvious he was wearing the national dunce cap, but because I’m a helper at heart, I screen-grabbed the tweet and reposted it for him.

As a political miscalculation, it was right up there with former President George W. Bush telling Oklahoma-born Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown he was “doing a heckuva job” after Brown botched FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina. It was unsafe and negatively influential behavior from a leader, and it read like “famous last words of political careers.”

Of course, we know the origins of this kind of acting out. In a general sense, Oklahomans have a reputation as rugged individualists: people who trust their gut and behave accordingly, regardless of conventional wisdom. They shoot first and ask questions later, which is partly why the NRA loves Oklahoma politicians so much.

In this tradition, Stitt decided to step out and show how Oklahomans are not going to let a deadly, quickly spreading virus get in the way of a good time. With that tweet, it was as if he were saying, “I’m not going to let some eggheaded liberal scientists tell me what to do from their ivory towers. I’m a legendary frontiersman who will put his boot in the ass of any viruses that get in my way!”

Opinion

From George Lang, our lead opinion columnist

Our nation has a top-down problem with this kind of unthinking bravado, starting with President Donald Trump. Trump spent the first two-and-a-half months of 2020 boldly telling his supporters that there was nothing to fear. As recently as March 10, he made public comments downplaying concern over COVID-19 after meeting with Republican senators, saying that “we’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”

In his own way, Stitt was staying calm, but there is often a fine line between calm and stupid. He treated his visit to The Collective as just another night out with the kids when the world’s doctors and public health officials were warning people to cease such behaviors, stay in their homes and practice social distancing. But after four years of being told that nearly everything, including incontrovertible science, is “fake news,” a sizable number of people will follow Stitt’s lead, deciding to come out and lick some doorknobs.

Stitt was not alone in his poor leadership. On March 15, U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, told Fox Business Channel’s Maria Bartiromo that it’s a “great time to go out and go to a local restaurant.” Around the same time, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice told his constituents, “Go to the grocery stores. For crying out loud, go to the grocery stores. If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat.”

Regardless of the health merits of pure pork sausage, we should not go to Bob Evans — or anywhere else — and eat. Instead, many Oklahoma restaurants are heeding the call of epidemiologists and offering curbside or home delivery, which reduces social interaction and thus the potential for spreading disease. We all want our local eateries to survive this outbreak. This is a responsible way to support them.

Within a day of his social media post and shortly after confirmation of the eighth case of COVID-19 in Oklahoma, Stitt declared a state of emergency for all 77 Oklahoma counties, but only after becoming a national laughingstock. As a result, Oklahoma was one of the last states to issue such a declaration.

Stitt needs to apologize to our state for his lack of leadership in a time of crisis. He should support social distancing through his own public behavior by staying in the Governor’s Mansion for a while. In the meantime, perhaps he could have a photo taken with a bag of food delivered from a locally owned restaurant.

But in case Stitt gets the wrong idea — now a legitimate concern — he should not hug the delivery guy in the photo.


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