Gov. Kevin Stitt spent time touting business wins and attacking President Joe Biden in a speech Thursday to Tulsa business leaders, but he only briefly touched on the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Tulsa Regional Chamber State of the State at the Cox Business Convention Center was billed as a discussion of the Stitt administration's "support of economic development and efforts to address and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic."
New cases and hospitalizations are approaching levels not seen since a three-month winter surge. The governor’s first reference to the pandemic during his Tulsa Chamber State of the State came after he joked California Gov. Gavin Newsom is Oklahoma’s economic developer of the year.
"California's liberal policies and endless regulations have made Oklahoma ground zero for business CEOs. So, thank you, Gavin. And to all other shutdown states, Oklahoma is open for business," Stitt said.
Stitt claimed by having a fully open economy since June 2020, Oklahoma is attracting more business and in a better financial position than other states. His only other reference to the pandemic was mentioning his use of quick-action closing funds to draw the Cattlemen’s Congress livestock show away from Colorado.
During a question-and-answer segment, Stitt was asked what the state is doing right now to ensure adequate hospital capacity. He singled out staffing as the main issue.
"And really, it happened all through this pandemic. It's happening across the country. I've been on the phone with the FEMA administration, 'How can we get more help, more resources here?' We're looking at ARP funding to bring and recruit more nurses to our state," Stitt said.
Several states are trying to bolster their hospital staffs with out-of-state nurses.
Oklahoma hospital officials have said they’re experiencing problems like running out of beds with fewer patients now than they did in the winter because more doctors and nurses have quit, leaving them with smaller staffs.
State Rep. Monroe Nichols (D-Tulsa) released a statement responding to Stitt's Tulsa Chamber address, noting the governor on Thursday did not mention COVID or the thousands of Oklahomans dead from the illness, adding Stitt has not held an update on the pandemic since March.
"This crisis has left Oklahomans begging for a leader, and at every turn, Governor Stitt has shown that it isn’t him. The governor’s speech today proved him to be the most divisive and ineffective leader in our state’s history — he has no record of accomplishment or plans for Oklahoma’s future," Nichols said.
Stitt was not available for questions after the event. Communications Director Carly Atchison said the Oklahoma National Guard was updating him on the situation in Afghanistan and that the governor had to get to another event. The Tulsa World reported the governor's office has been actively helping people with Oklahoma ties get out of the country.
Asked whether the ongoing rise in COVID cases and recent death of an Oklahoma City eighth-grader from the illness would change anything about the state's response, Atchison said choosing to get vaccinated remains the most effective way for Oklahomans to protect themselves from severe illness.
"Every death is a tragedy. The governor remains confident in Oklahomans to do the right thing," Atchison said in an email.
During his Tulsa Chamber address Thursday, Stitt continued to attack Biden. He accuses the president of mishandling the situation in Afghanistan, where civilian evacuations continue amid withdrawal of U.S. troops and the Taliban’s subsequent takeover of the country.
"The lack of leadership in this time of crisis is really disheartening. The Biden administration is now taking its orders from a terrorist organization. It's really difficult to watch," Stitt said.
Last year, then-President Trump brokered a deal with the Taliban that called for removing troops from Afghanistan by May 1 and the U.S. releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Biden has followed that deal, drawing criticism.
Stitt released a video last week saying the blame for the situation in Afghanistan ultimately rests with Biden.
Stitt was supposed to participate in a videoconference with Biden and other governors on Thursday to talk about accepting Afghan refugees. That meeting was canceled in the wake of an attack that killed 12 U.S. service members in Kabul.
"The governor hoped the call with President Biden would provide clarity as to how we could help cut the red tape and get Americans, people with ties to Oklahoma who have helped our troops, or those who will be persecuted by the Taliban, safely out of Afghanistan and what the vetting and resettlement process would look like for those who come to the United States," Atchison said.
Stitt on Thursday also renewed his criticism of Biden asking OPEC earlier this month to boost oil production to help along global recovery from the pandemic.
"So, I have a message for the president: Do not turn your back on us. Oklahoma has companies, rigs and workers ready to drill here in Oklahoma," Stitt said.
Biden has taken regulatory actions some analysts say discourage growth in U.S. production.