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As Outbreak Hits New Highs, Stitt Continues Defying Guidelines He Tells Oklahomans To Follow

Twitter / @GovStitt
Gov. Kevin Stitt (left) with Mike Dillard of Century Martial Arts in a still image from a video posted to the governor's Twitter feed on Thursday.

(This story was updated on Fri., Oct. 9, at 2:52 p.m. to include comments from Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum received after publication.)

As COVID-19 continues to ravage Oklahoma and the state sets grim records for hospitalizations and new cases, Gov. Kevin Stitt remains seemingly immune to the public health recommendations of his own administration, even as the Trump White House advised this weekthat many of the state's recent COVID-19 fatalities were preventable deaths.

In a video praising a martial arts equipment manufacturer for switching some of its fabrication operations to produce personal protective equipment posted to Stitt's Twitter feed Thursday, the governor does not wear a mask and stands close enough to touch company representative Mike Dillard, which, in fact, he does at one point. (Dillard also did not wear a mask in the video.)

Photos posted to social media by various individuals and groups show Stitt hosting a luncheon in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month yesterday at the Oklahoma Governor's Mansion. In several photos, Stitt does not wear a mask while embracing groups of people, or while speaking to the dozens of attendees from a lectern. 

The Oklahoma State Department of Health recommends that all Oklahomans wear cloth face coverings while in public places and keep a minimum of six feet of distance between themselves and others. In a Wednesday tweet, OSDH said "By wearing your mask every time you go out in a public setting, you set yourself apart for being a good neighbor!"

Stitt has frequently promoted the "Three W's" -- wash your hands, watch your distance, and wear a mask -- while regularly flouting at least two of those. In July, he tweeted, "WestillneedallOklahomanstodotheirparttoslowthespreadofthisvirus. Pleasetakepersonalresponsibilitytoprotectyourself, yourfamily, & ourmostvulnerablefromthisvirus."

The governor was asked by a reporter at a September press conference why he had participated in a crowded, indoor gathering in Guthrie that month without wearing a mask. A photo of the event spread on social media.

"You know, I'm around the state. If I forgot to put [a mask] on, I don't know. People take pictures of me all the time and probably post stuff. It's some folks that probably have a different agenda than we do," Stitt said of the photo, which was posted to Facebook by the Guthrie Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the event.

Asked in July why he was not wearing a mask during a press conference, Stitt noted that he'd already had COVID-19. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instructs those who have had the disease to continue to wear a mask. 

In June, Stitt was asked about video posted to his social media accounts which show him not wearing a mask or distancing while speaking with an elderly man inside a shop during a visit to Perry.

"Me not wearing a mask is something that, at that event, I don't know if I was close to people, or what, or whether you were there, or whether you just took a picture of me," Stitt said. (After the reporter indicated that there are pictures of the governor standing close to people, Stitt smiled, said "gotcha, okay," and proceeded to the next question.)

Speaking about politicians generally, Dr. George Monks, President of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said Friday that government figures play a powerful role in setting a good example for public health.

"It is important for leaders calling for masking and distancing to model that same behavior," Monks said. "We hope our leaders will be the best among us, and, likewise, will bring out the best in all of us.

"Just as the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. That's true in this case. We need our politicians to use actions and words."

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum has worn masks at most, if not all, indoor events for months.

"“As mayor, I am around a lot of people and I know that the purpose of the mask is to protect them from being accidentally contaminated by me," Bynum said in a Friday email, responding to a question about his motivations for masking so consistently. "If I happened to have COVID-19, didn’t know it, and went around without a mask on I could potentially infect a lot of people.  I would never want to do that, so I play it safe and wear the mask when I’m around others." 

"It was notable to me in our meeting with Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the nation’s foremost experts on COVID who has been able to safely travel around the country during the pandemic, that she never once took her mask off while speaking with our group.  She set a memorable example which I try to follow," Bynum said.

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

Oklahoma set an all-time record for most confirmed new cases of COVID-19 in a single day on Friday, with OSDH reporting 1,524 new infections. (The state reported 1,714 new cases on July 21, but that was due to a backlog of multiple days' worth of cases.) As of Thursday evening, more Oklahomans were hospitalized with the disease -- 749 -- than at any point so far in the pandemic.

Vice President Mike Pence's White House coronavirus task force considers Oklahoma one of the 10 worst states in the country for both new infections per 100,000 residents and test positivity rate, as of their most recent report from Sunday. In separate reports within the last month, Pence's task force has said that "ensuring mask utilization statewide will prevent unnecessary transmission and deaths in vulnerable communities," and "Community transmission has remained high across the state for the past month, with many preventable deaths."

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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