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'Personal responsibility' shaped Stitt's early COVID-19 response

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Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks April 7, 2020, during a news conference in Oklahoma City where the state amassed it stockpile of personal protection equipment and medical supplies for the its COVID-19 response.

OKLAHOMA CITY — On an early April call with several doctors and health care officials, Gov. Kevin Stitt learned his recent executive order banning elective surgeries had postponed some procedures needed to treat cancer or heart blockages.

The governor had acted in an effort to save hospital supplies and reduce strain on medical staff as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to spread in Oklahoma. But the order caused some confusion among the health care community.

“I figured she’d be having surgery right now,” Stitt said about a woman with a kidney tumor he was told had to postpone her surgery because of his order, according to a recording of the call The Frontier obtained through an open records request. “I think people overreact, it was never my intent to stop someone with cancer (from having surgery). My intent was to stop something that was truly elective, and I guess we didn’t get into the weeds enough or those hospitals weren’t asking the correct questions.”

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Two weeks earlier, on a call with evangelical pastors, Stitt boasted, “There is no possible way I’m going to let a police officer arrest a pastor in the state of Oklahoma as long as I’m governor,” referring to orders in some cities banning large gatherings.

However, when a pastor asked Stitt to confirm he was giving church leaders the power to decide for themselves whether they could hold in-person services, the governor laughed and said he wasn’t sure what his recent executive order recommending Oklahomans follow the President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America meant for churches.

“Let me get back to you on that. I already did this executive order, and I need to ask them exactly what that means,” Stitt told the pastors.

The Frontier has listened to more than 30 hours of the governor’s recorded video calls from March and April, and read more than 7,000 emails — all obtained through an open records request — in order to better understand Stitt’s initial thought process and how it influenced his response to COVID-19.

Health and economy

The picture that emerged was of a governor who, at times, had a limited understanding of some of the executive orders he issued, was inconsistent in following federal health guidelines and downplayed his authority to close down businesses even as many city leaders across the state took that very action.

In mid-March, as the pandemic arrived in Oklahoma, Stitt quickly assembled a task force in response. But he also encouraged Oklahomans to stick to their routines, a posture he modeled himself.

On March 14, two days after the NBA had suspended its season following positive coronavirus cases in Oklahoma City, Stitt tweeted a photo of himself with two of his children inside a crowded Oklahoma City food hall.

“It’s packed tonight,” Stitt said in a tweet that was deleted a few hours later.

The tweet drew criticism, including from President Donald Trump, who two days later said it would have been better for Stitt to stay home, which was the advice of his own health officials.

Later that day, on a call with state restaurant and hotel leaders, Stitt laughed about Trump’s response.

“That’s the difficult thing here with me trying to calm down and do what’s best for Oklahoma. I don’t want to go against the president or what his recommendations are, but yet I don’t want to crash Oklahoma’s economy,” Stitt said on the call, adding he planned to continue taking his family to restaurants. “My most important job is to protect Oklahomans and get us ready for this, but we have to protect local business.”

That dual approach — protecting public health and the local economy — has been criticized by some health leaders who believe the governor could have done more to mitigate the early spread of the coronavirus and promote, or even force, a compliant public. Many business leaders believe Stitt, a former businessman himself, saved the state’s economy from crashing even further.

The pressure to protect the economy in Oklahoma was intensified with a slumping oil and gas sector.

On April 1, during a call with state lawmakers, Stitt said cases would continue to increase but Oklahoma could not afford to shut down its economy.

“This is really about personal responsibility,” Stitt said. “We have to continue the social distancing. “You can’t require people to bunker in place for extended periods of time. This thing is going to peak at the end of April.”

Following Trump

Back in March and April, Stitt consistently encouraged Oklahomans that the pandemic would not last, that “together we will get through this,” and personal responsibility was the most effective way to avoid spread.

Facing the greatest crisis of his young political career, Stitt often told the public he was following Trump’s lead, even though some warned him about taking the president too seriously.

On March 17, during a call with members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation, Stitt asked when they thought life might return to normal.

Would it “just go away” in August, as Trump had recently predicted, Stitt asked.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, a staunch supporter of the president, warned the governor about embracing the president’s prediction.

“There is no way we can answer that question, Kevin, because there are so many unknowns and uncertainties,” Inhofe said. “The president has been having a hard time (with this question). … I think when he came out with July or August (as a time when the pandemic would end) he had to answer something and he did, but that’s not really thought out.”

But Stitt remained a public supporter of the president and said Oklahoma would follow his guidance, which in the early months of the pandemic was sometimes factually wrong or contradicted the advice of other health professionals, including those on Trump’s own coronavirus response team.

While it was later revealed that Trump intentionally downplayed the severity of the pandemic, Stitt early on referred to the coronavirus as a “serious matter” and he called on Oklahoma State Department of Health to be as transparent as possible in releasing information about the number of positive cases and those hospitalized due to COVID-19.

“We want to be very transparent so you will be able to see that on the (state) websites,” Stitt told dozens of local chamber presidents on a March 16 call.

On that call, the first question a local chamber representative asked Stitt was whether he would recommend the closure of restaurants and stores.

“No, not at this point,” Stitt said. “I’m continuing to go to the restaurants with my family. You have to use common sense. If you have a compromised immune system, maybe not do that.”

But outside pressure to close businesses mounted over the next several weeks and the topic was commonly listed on the governor’s daily COVID-19 meeting agendas, copies of which The Frontier received through an open records request.

Stitt often downplayed the power he had as a governor to order businesses to close and regularly cited “personal responsibility” as the most effective way to overcome the virus, according to multiple phone conversations and the news conferences he held most weeks.

Protecting business

Stitt said on at least four calls in March he would not issue a statewide order closing nonessential businesses or one that required residents to remain at home.

On a March 23 call with members of the state Legislature, Stitt said he was against a “shelter in place” order because he wouldn’t know when to end it.

“Let’s say you did shelter in place … when do we lift shelter in place, how long do we keep that going? I don’t think it’s possible to do shelter in place through August, or September, or even January,” Stitt said.

Stitt also said closing nonessential businesses was nearly impossible to do.

The governor took more than three minutes on the call to read off a list of industries and workers he considered essential, including those working in energy, chemicals, transportation, public works, communications and information technology.

“I could go on and on,” Stitt said. “The real key to mitigate this … it is really the social distancing. This may be our new normal for a while. This could last for two months or three months or six months.”

But on March 24, Stitt issued an order to close nonessential businesses in counties with confirmed cases, which at the time totaled 19. The order was expanded to all counties by April 1.

The order allowed businesses in the “critical infrastructure sector” to remain open, which ended up including a majority of companies.

Stitt received more than three dozen emails from business and industry leaders urging him to consider them an “essential business.”

Devery Youngblood, executive director of Oklahoma Aggregates Association, who sent an email to Stitt, told The Frontier he believed other states were overreacting with their own shutdown orders and he didn’t want to see the same thing happen in Oklahoma.

“I think having a business-minded governor he knew how to assess the health risk, but also realize the potential harm to the economy,” said Youngblood, who praised Stitt’s initial response to COVID-19.

But not every business leader agreed.

'A halfway approach'

Tulsa billionaire George Kaiser wrote an email in March urging the governor to do more.

“The almost universal opinion I hear from business leaders is that neither Oklahoma State Government nor the Federal Government have done nearly enough to ‘flatten the curve,’” Kaiser wrote in a March 24 email, addressed to Sean Kouplen, the Secretary of Commerce and Workforce Development, and forwarded to Stitt’s office.

“By the time the data supports more aggressive action, it will be too late to protect our healthcare organizations and the health of our citizens. The economy will fully recover; the deceased and many of the ill will not.”

Kaiser wrote that his nonprofit foundation was busy providing for the “basic needs of the population, which state government should be addressing.”

“I am one of the majority of business people I talk to who believe strongly that state government is behind the curve, though I am one of the few who is brazen enough to express that,” wrote Kaiser, who said he supported a shelter in place order.

Stitt’s office also received dozens of emails in March and April from citizens urging him to issue a shelter in place order, including several doctors and nurses who said the situation in parts of the state was worse than it appeared.

Dr. Edd Rhoades, who retired on Jan. 1 as the State Department of Health’s chief medical officer, wrote Stitt on March 29 urging him to take stronger action against COVID-19. Rhoades also said Stitt’s “safer at home” order fell “far short” of what was needed.

“Safer at Home is a halfway approach to address an enemy that requires an all-out war response,” Rhoades wrote. “It is not too late to still act and save lives of our fellow Oklahomans.”

Less than two weeks after issuing the “safer at home” order, Stitt began talking to those around him about reopening the state, according to three sources close to the governor who were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal private conversations among the governor’s staff.

Not only was Stitt eager to reopen, he believed there might be an advantage to beating other states. At times, he referred to it as a “covantage,” a combination of the words “COVID” and “advantage” to illustrate his desire to find ways to leverage the economic downturn into an opportunity in Oklahoma, according to multiple sources and a call he had with mayors from across the state.

On April 24, Stitt began a phased reopening plan and by early May he was appearing at the reopening of department stores and fitness centers.

“So right now we’re in the middle of phase one, and part of phase one is getting that consumer confidence,” Stitt said during a tour of an Oklahoma City fitness center, which reopened on May 8.

As businesses began to reopen, Stitt said shutting down again would not be an option, even as cases showed a summer spike, and increased again in October and November.

“The governor heard from Oklahomans wanting to get back to work to earn paychecks to support their families as soon as it was safe to do so,” Stitt’s office said in a statement to The Frontier on Monday. “Being one of the first states to safely reopen drew national attention from companies like Life Time and Dillard’s and helped to quickly reduce Oklahoma’s unemployment rate.”

Cases on the rise

New cases of COVID-19 have significantly increased recently.

On Monday, Stitt issued new orders that require restaurants and bars to close at 11 p.m. and for tables to be six-feet apart.

But Stitt has rejected calls to impose a mask mandate, even as mandates in Oklahoma City and Tulsa appeared to have a positive impact on case numbers. COVID-19 growth rates from Aug. 1 to Oct. 21 in counties without mask mandates grew 88%, while areas with a mask mandate only saw a 21% increase, according to the OSU Center for Health Sciences.

Since March, Stitt has pointed to personal responsibility as the key factor in driving down COVID-19 cases.

“This is really about personal responsibility. We have to continue the social distancing,” Stitt said on April 1.

As cases hit new records earlier this month, Stitt pointed to April and said the state’s response then worked and could be repeated.

“Oklahomans pulled together back in April so we could safely reopen our economy, and I am asking for that same unified effort once again to slow the spread of this virus and keep Oklahomans safe,” Stitt said in a Nov. 7 statement.

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The Frontier is a nonprofit focusing on investigative and watchdog journalism. For more information or to donate, go to www.readfrontier.org.

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