Despite recommendations from the Trump administration that the state of Oklahoma implement far stricter restrictions to combat the coronavirus, a spokesperson for Gov. Kevin Stitt said Friday that they're just that -- recommendations.
"The Governor’s office followed up after the Task Force’s latest report and the White House confirmed that these are not mandates and that the State is not out of compliance with any federal orders," said Baylee Lakey, the governor's communications director, in an emailed statement.
The White House report, dated July 26th, says Oklahoma "is in the red zone for cases, indicating more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week, and the red zone for test positivity, indicating a rate above 10%."
The report says that closing bars statewide and limiting indoor restaurant capacity to 25% is "critical to disrupt transmission," and that "mask mandates must be implemented in yellow and red zones." The task force says 55 of Oklahoma's 77 counties are either yellow or red.
The report also says that the 16 red zone counties, which include Tulsa, Wagoner, and Creek Counties, should close all gyms, limit gatherings to no more than 10 people, and wear a mask at all times outside the home, even when social distancing is possible.
Stitt has repeatedly stated with certainty that he will not consider a mask mandate due to ideological opposition, and he does not currently plan to roll back the reopening of the state's economy.
On Thursday, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said he hadn't heard anything from the governor's office.
"For a report like that, we're reliant on the people it's presented to to make us aware of anything that we need to be doing," Bynum said. "So if there's been a breakdown in communication there on something so important, that is definitely a concern for me."
"It is a concern if there is that level of concern out there for public health in Tulsa, that no one is communicating that with public health officials in Tulsa for us to take action on, is definitely concerning," Bynum said.
In the statement from the governor's office, Lakey said they would continue to only release reports based on the state's own color coding alert system, which has a higher threshold for what constitutes a red zone.
"The Governor supports the actions taken at the local level in the areas of concern, and the State continues to issue every Friday a COVID-19 risk alert map, largely based on the White House methodology, to further support Oklahoma’s mayors, county commissioners, and other local leaders," Lakey said.
Dr. Bruce Dart, director of the Tulsa Health Department, suggested on Thursday that the state's color-coding system may not be useful for Tulsa County.
"You look at the state alert system, it's based on a statewide metric for hospital beds, which, from a regional concept, isn't going to be very helpful for us," Dart said. "If our hospitals are seeing capacity here, and there's hospital beds elsewhere, we still won't meet that high-risk or red category."
Stitt on Thursday suggested the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis may be politically motivated in requesting documents explaining why the state is ignoring the federal recommendations. (The White House coronavirus task force, which issued the recommendations, is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.)
"I'm not being partisan here," said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who chairs the subcommittee and authored the letter to the governor, during a hearing on Friday. "We're trying to save lives."
The governor's office said in an email that they have until Aug. 12th to submit documents, according to the subcommittee's request letter, and that they will announce later whether or not they intend to comply.
Medical professionals have been raising the alarm in Oklahoma for several weeks. On Friday, the University of Oklahoma's Chief COVID Officer, Dr. Dale Bratzler, said Oklahoma is catching up with states that have drawn recent national for how dire their virus situations are.
“We’ve about caught up with Texas now in terms of number of cases per 100,000 residents," Bratzler said. "We all have heard about Texas. We know they have big numbers, but Oklahoma’s not far behind with respect to population-based numbers that we’re seeing.”
In a written statement, the president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, Dr. George Monks, said the state's alert system needs tweaking.
"The bed availability is going to fluctuate on a day-to-day basis," Monks said. "That is why we need to make sure that our health policy decision makers have the best and most accurate available to them. They need to know what is going on in their communities, not just in the state as a whole.”
"Many school districts are relying on this system in making determinations about what the school year might look like. They need access to good, local data in making these decisions," the statement concludes.