Despite clear guidance from the CDC and a top White House coronavirus official against such behavior due to the devastating surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, Gov. Kevin Stitt said Thursday he plans to attend a college football game and celebrate Thanksgiving with members of his family outside his immediate household.
"I'm going to be with my family over Thanksgiving. I'm going to do it safely. I'm going to be with my parents. I think Oklahomans should be with their loved ones over Thanksgiving," Stitt said at a press briefing at the state Capitol.
"We know people are going to be gathering with their families over Thanksgiving, and we can do that safely," said Stitt, unmasked while speaking with reporters despite his recent executive order requiring state employees wear masks and long-time focus on "personal responsibility" when it comes to face coverings.
In a press release a spokesperson said is scheduled to be released Monday, the Oklahoma State Department of Health encourages Oklahomans to follow the CDC recommendations to avoid travel if at all possible, saying virtual gatherings or celebrating with only your immediate household pose the lowest risk of spreading the disease.
At separate press conferences in their respective cities Thursday, Tulsa and Oklahoma City officials stressed how urgent it was for their residents to heed public health warnings given the currently buckling hospital system.
"We still have so much to be grateful for, and so the spirit of the holiday is one I still very much embrace," said Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt. "But the common practice of the holiday in the middle of a pandemic has the potential to be the worst super-spreader event in human history."
"We ask you: Consider the cost," said Dr. Patrick McGough, director of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department. "As you make plans for your weekend, plans for Thanksgiving, plans for Christmas and all the other winter holidays and the new year holiday, consider the cost of those plans. Consider whether that plan is worth spending two or three weeks in the hospital. Consider whether that plan is worth unknowingly giving the virus to your grandmother, your grandfather, aunt or uncle, or could potentially cost them their lives before the end of the year if exposed to the virus."
"Trust me: Not seeing your family for one Thanksgiving is far better than having that chair empty next year and every year thereafter," McGough said.
Dr. Bruce Dart, McGough's counterpart at the Tulsa Health Department, shared similar sentiments.
"It would be absolutely devastating to learn that a family member who contracted the virus at Thanksgiving was not alive at Christmas. I'm sorry, that's just the harsh reality," Dart said.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said he would lead by example.
"Our family has been here since the 1870s, and we're Catholic, so there's a lot of us. Usually we have over 100 people at Thanksgiving. This year, it'll be my wife and I and our two kids at home by ourselves. Four of us," Bynum said. "And we're doing that because we want to keep our family safe. Think about that for your own family."
Bynum, Holt and Stitt are all Republicans.
Dr. Deborah Birx, whose White House coronavirus task force has long called for a statewide mask mandate in Oklahoma and has told Stitt many of the state's COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented, told CNN Friday Thanksgiving should be kept to immediate household members. She also criticized officials
"We have 18-to-22-year-olds doing the right thing, and we're not willing to tell people that they really can't gather in public spaces? Or even indoors with their mask off with people that could have the virus because that's how it spreads and you can't tell. And I think when this is all over, we need to look at our choices and really understand in a different way what choice is best for every American at the time," Birx told CNN's Sanjay Gupta.