Gov. Kevin Stitt has responded to a letter from a Congressional subcommittee requesting an explanation for why Oklahoma was declining to implement federal recommendations regarding the coronavirus.
In a Wednesday letter to Democratic Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the chair of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Stitt wrote that Oklahoma's approach to the virus has been appropriate.
"Out of my support for local control, the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) issued on July 9 a unique COVID-19 Risk Alert Map to help drive decisions unique to each county based on population density, local tracing data and healthcare infrastructure," Stitt wrote.
The OSDH color-coded alert system has a higher threshold for counties to enter the "red zone" than the White House's model, which some public health experts and officials, including Tulsa Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart, have said may not be helpful at a local level.
"While revisions are underway to modify recommendations based on recent data, at the time of issuing this Alert Map, OSDH recommended face coverings in all public settings for orange counties," Stitt's letter reads, with the governor touting that "several Oklahoma cities" had enacted face covering requirements. (The governor has vowed to never introduce a statewide mask mandate.)
"Chairman Clyburn, I believe as Americans we can all agree that every life is valuable," Stitt writes. "We do not want COVID-19 to take another life."
"We also do not want another family to lose their household income and the roof over their heads. We do not want isolation, and the undue mental challenges it brings, to rob the quality of life of another loved one."
Stitt writes that child abuse is one major concern for his administration during the pandemic, and it going "unnoticed and unaccounted for" is a factor in virus-related decision making.
The letter concludes that the state will provide more documentation to the subcommittee in coming days, but that the governor's office's primary concern is preparing for a Sunday visit from Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House coronavirus task force.
A July report from the task force, which is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, recommended Oklahoma and certain localities take far stricter measures to combat the novel coronavirus.
The report said 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 said 55 of Oklahoma's 77 counties are either yellow or red.
The report also said 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.
At the time of Clyburn's original letter, Stitt said he believed it may be motivated by politics rather than public health. In a subcommittee meeting, Clyburn, responding generally to criticisms from elected officials in all four states from which he requested explanations, said in a subcommittee meeting that that was not the case.
"I'm not being partisan here; we're trying to save lives," Clyburn said.
In July, the governor's office said they were not required to follow the White House guidance.
"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.