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Local Officials Across Oklahoma 'Blindsided,' 'Shocked' By White House Report Not Shared By Governor

Chris Polansky
Gov. Kevin Stitt (left) addresses reporters after meeting with Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House coronavirus task force at Tulsa's OSU Center for Health Sciences on Sunday, Aug. 16th.

Following the leak of a report showing the White House considers Oklahoma a “red zone” for COVID-19 cases and is privately urging the state’s government to institute far stricter measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic, such as a statewide mask mandate and the closure of all bars, local officials are expressing considerable frustration that they’re being kept in the dark about federal recommendations.

“Is there a frustration that there’s information out there about Tulsa that we’re finding out by accident? Yes,” said Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, who has expressed the same sentiment in the past, at a Thursday press conference. At least one previous federal document with recommendations for Tulsa has not been shared by the governor’s office. Both were obtained and published by the Center for Public Integrity.

The new report from the White House coronavirus task force, which counts Vice President Mike Pence as its chair and Dr. Deborah Birx as its coordinator, is dated Sunday, Aug. 16th, the same day as Birx’s visit with Gov. Kevin Stitt in Tulsa. Following that meeting, Stitt said “there wasn’t really any recommendations that she made in this meeting,” and said specifically that she had not recommended a statewide mask mandate nor a statewide bar closure. 

“Mask mandate needs to be implemented statewide to decrease community transmission,” the leaked report reads, in a section on the first page labeled RECOMMENDATIONS. “Bars must be closed, and indoor dining must be restricted in yellow and red zone counties and metro areas.”

The report lists six metropolitan areas as being in the “red zone,” recommending they immediately shutter bars and gyms, ban social gatherings of more than 10 people, instruct residents and visitors to wear masks at all times outside the home, and not eat at indoor restaurants. 

Public Radio Tulsa contacted officials from the largest municipality in each red zone metro area. None had heard about the report from the governor’s office or any state agency. Several first learned about it when reached for comment by phone.

“Prior to this call, I was not aware that that report even existed,” said McAlester Mayor John Browne. 

“To our knowledge, we haven’t received anything from Gov. Stitt,” said Dianna Davis, Sallisaw City Clerk, who said she also checked with the city manager’s office. (Sallisaw is the largest municipality in Oklahoma within the Fort Smith statistical area, which is centered in Arkansas.)

“Well, I’m not aware of that, but, you know, I guess school starts, everybody’s together, and a few more people get it – I mean, that’s all I know. I haven’t seen the report or anything, so I really don’t have a statement,” said Mike Honigsberg, director of the City of Enid Department of Emergency Management. “I’ll look into it and see what I can find out.”

Thomas Anderson, who is both the chief of the Miami Police Department and the city’s director of emergency management, said he learned about the report when one of his detectives forwarded him a news story Friday morning.

“This report kind of blindsided me a little bit,” Anderson said. “I know that our numbers have gone up a little bit, but nothing I’d seen put out by the state had put us in the red zone.”

City of Guymon Economic and Community Development Director Sheila Martin said she was not aware of the report or its recommendations. She said the recommendation against gatherings of more than 10 people was especially surprising given that the city is scheduled to host “the fifth-largest rodeo in the country” this weekend.

Guymon City Manager Joe Don Dunham expressed the most pique of any official reached by phone on Friday.

“I’m shocked and concerned this is the first I’m hearing about it,” said Dunham, who explained the city’s mayor had seen a news article that morning and shared it with city officials. He said he had reached out to the Oklahoma Municipal League to try to get Stitt’s office to share the report with them.

“Obviously, we’re not getting it any other way,” said Dunham, who added that he was on a conference call with the governor’s office on Wednesday, and the information was not shared. “I’m very frustrated.”

In a statement provided Friday afternoon following multiple requests for comment, Stitt committed to not keeping further reports hidden from local governments or the public.

“The most recent State Report for Oklahoma, prepared by The White House Coronavirus Task Force on Aug. 16 and issued to the states on Aug. 17, was shared earlier this week with the Tulsa Health Department and OKC-County Health Department, and we have asked the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) to begin making the reports publicly available each week by posting them to the coronavirus.health.ok.gov dashboard,” the statement reads.

The governor’s office did not respond to questions about whether or not they would implement the recommendations, but in a July 31st statement regarding a previous version of the report, they said they are not legally required to follow the guidance from the White House, and that public health information the state provides is publicly accessible to local officials and “largely based on the White House methodology.”

“I understand it may not be legally required,” Dunham, the Guymon city manager said, “but somewhere some ethics has got to come in, and this is important information that we should have had, and ethically I would have thought that they would have submitted it to us. It’s just a matter of being a better human being, you know, than may be required.” 

He added: “That’s just Joe Don Dunham’s opinion, not a city of Guymon stance.”

“That’s the way I would operate it. I think there should have been an ethical responsibility or a moral responsibility for the state to get that down to the cities so the cities could help make decisions and inform citizens of what’s going on,” said Dunham. “Otherwise, we’ll never get this thing taken care of.”

Birx’s visit to Tulsa was shrouded in secrecy as she stopped in Oklahoma as part of a seven-state tour. Oklahoma was the only state in which she was not made available to speak to reporters. 

Tulsa Mayor Bynum said he and other attendees were kept waiting for “about 45 minutes” while Birx met with the governor and members of his cabinet privately at the OSU Center for Health Sciences. Bynum said and Stitt confirmed on Sunday that the governor’s office denied Bynum’s request to have Dr. Bruce Dart, the director of the Tulsa Health Department, present for the meeting. The governor said it was due to capacity constraints.

"Overall it went really good, and she's pleased with Oklahoma and what we've done so far,” the governor told reporters on Sunday, just after the meeting.

The governor’s Friday statement announcing his reversal on disclosing the reports concludes: “The rate of positive cases is declining in Oklahoma and hospitalizations have remained stable. I remain encouraged by the steadfast resolve of Oklahoma’s frontline workers as they aggressively combat this virus. Let’s continue to come together as Oklahomans by following guidelines and furthering our downward trend.”

UPDATE (5:36 p.m., Fri., Aug 21st): Following this story being published, Baylee Lakey, Gov. Stitt's communications director, emailed this comment as an addition to their prepared statement: "Dr. Birx did not present or discuss the Aug. 16 report with the Governor during her trip to Tulsa."

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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