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Newly Public White House Reports Show Growing Federal Concern About Oklahoma's Virus Response

Twitter / Joy Hofmeister (@joy4ok)
A photo posted on Twitter by Superintendent Joy Hofmeister of Gov. Kevin Stitt (left, unmasked), Dr. Deborah Birx (center), and Health Commissioner Lance Frye.

Weekly reports the state has been receiving from the White House coronavirus task force since June, newly released by Gov. Kevin Stitt, paint a clearer picture of the federal view of Oklahoma's COVID-19 pandemic response.

The reports, which contain specific policy recommendations for both state leaders and officials in specific cities and counties, were not made available to either the public or local-level elected leaders until Friday, when Stitt announced he would reverse course and publish them online. 

The first report, dated June 29th, recommends "ensur[ing] public use of masks in all current and evolving hot spots." By July 14th, that recommendation had strengthened to "mandate public use of masks in all current and evolving hot spots." On Aug. 2nd, the guidance became "put in mask requirement statewide," with even stronger wording by Aug. 16th: "Mask mandate needs to be implemented statewide to decrease community transmission."

The language on bar closures similarly grows in urgency, from the June 29th report -- "Consider closing bars in hot spot counties" -- to July 26th, when the White House calls closing all bars statewide "critical."

Dr. Deborah Birx, who coordinates the task force, visited Tulsa on Sunday, Aug. 16th, the same date of a report containing recommendations to close all bars and mandate masks statewide. Birx did not speak to reporters, and the meeting was closed to press. Afterwards, Stitt said she hadn't made recommendations during the meeting, saying explicitly that she did not recommend a statewide mask mandate or statewide bar closures. (A spokesperson for the governor reaffirmed in a statement that Birx did not discuss her task force's report during the meeting.)

Asked about the reports at an Aug. 13th press conference, after at least one of the reports had already leaked, prompting frustration from Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, Stitt said he wanted "everything posted on a daily basis."

"If there's not anything being shared, we absolutely will share anything. If it is something coming from the White House, and you've got it as media, I would assume that everybody in the state would have it as well," Stitt said. "I can't speak to why, if somebody didn't have it."

Following the leak and publication of the Aug. 16th report by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, local officials from municipalities listed in the document expressed frustration that the information in the reports had not made its way down to local governments.

McAlester City Councilor Zach Prichard said on Monday that he believes if the council had had the information from the federal government, they would have taken stronger measures more quickly.

"The city council of McAlester considered and adopted a mask ordinance a little over a month ago now," he said. "But the way our system works, we have to have five votes to get an emergency provision attached to the ordinance, or else it takes a month to get into effect. 

"We weren't able to get five votes. We could only get four votes. Information like that from those reports could have certainly been helpful in establishing with the rest of the city councilmembers that this was a serious situation, that this was an emergency that needed immediate action."

Mayor Will Joyce of Stillwater also described himself as "frustrated" that the city, which was mentioned by name in several reports, did not receive the federal recommendations, but even more frustrated that Stitt had not taken the state-level recommendations.

"Had the state been following these recommendations on a broad basis as they're written in here, I think that would have changed a lot," Joyce said. "Specifically: We were really concerned about trying to get this local music festival shut down this past weekend, felt like it wasn't a good idea for our community, but we're not able to because it's outside the city limits. Under these guidelines, the state should have acted on a county-by-county basis for Payne County -- it seems like even before now -- and that may have kept that event from happening.

"I hope that the state takes these recommendations, and that Gov. Stitt takes these recommendations, and applies them in the way that the federal coronavirus task force intended for them to be taken. I hope that's the case. I wouldn't say I'm optimistic it will be."

Mike Fina, executive director of the Oklahoma Municipal League, an advocacy group for municipal governments, said he received numerous inquiries from local leaders around the state concerned that they hadn't received the reports they'd seen reported in the press.

"The general concern when the news came out was: Is there something we need to know that we're not getting?" said Fina, who said he took those concerns to the governor's office.

"I think they just probably made a little bit of an error in judgment in thinking those shouldn't also go out to the municipalities," Fina said of the governor's office. "They acknowledged that to me, and they corrected it, and now they're going to make sure that they are sent out to the municipalities as well as everyone else, not just the county health departments."

(The Tulsa Health Department, which serves as the health department for Tulsa County, has previously said they hadn't seen or received the reports. It is unclear if other county health departments have been receiving them, though numerous cities and towns have said they have not received the reports from their county health departments.)

"I do not believe anything nefarious was going on with the governor on this situation," Fina said. "I think they made a judgment call on the importance of  who needed to see that report, and that it would get disseminated, the data would get disseminated through the state.

"I think they just made an error in judgment, they've corrected that, and I don't think it'll happen again."

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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