Speaking at the Capitol shortly after Oklahoma reported its largest ever single-day jump in COVID-19 infections, Gov. Kevin Stitt committed to not implementing -- or even considering -- a mandatory masking policy, even if the coronavirus pandemic continues its upward trend in the state.
"I will not consider or reconsider mandating masks. We believe in freedoms," said Stitt, who briefly donned a face covering at the press conference.
"I don't want to get to a point where we start shaming people for choosing not to wear a mask," Stitt said. "There could be reasons why they don't want to wear a mask or couldn't wear a mask, and I'm not going to mandate masks in the state of Oklahoma."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Oklahoma State Department of Health both recommend wearing face coverings when in situations where social distancing may be impossible.
Asked about recent video posted to the governor's social media accounts which show Stitt not wearing a mask or distancing while speaking with an elderly man inside a shop during a Friday visit to Perry, Stitt did not provide a rationale for his decision.
"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.)
Stitt also maintained that COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state were at an acceptable and manageable level.
"I don't want to alarm Oklahomans, either," Stitt said. "We have 315 people in the state of Oklahoma in the hospital. 315. On April 24th, we had 306. So, pretty much flat, even though we've been open 68 days. So this is about hospital capacity. The goal was never to have zero cases in the state of Oklahoma." (Shortly after the governor spoke, the number of hospitalizations was updated to 374.)
"This could be our new normal, and this is what I'm telling Oklahomans, for the next 24 months," Stitt said. "We need to learn how to live with this."
Stitt said that after speaking with federal officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, he will be introducing a county-by-county color-coded system to assign a level of risk at the local level.
"Giving county-by-county guidance gives Oklahomans accurate pictures of the situation in their communities," Stitt said. "It also encourages them to be personally responsible for their actions knowing their behaviors could help keep their county in the green."
Oklahoma House of Representatives Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) had introduced and called for the governor to implement a similar color-coded system at a press conference last week. At the time, the governor's office released a statement that did not directly address the policy proposal, reading, in part, "It is disappointing, but not surprising, to see the minority party continue to try to play politics during a pandemic."
Stitt also used the press conference to introduce two new cabinet nominees, following the Monday announcement of the resignations of Secretary of Health and Mental Health Jerome Loughridge and Secretary of Science and Innovation Dr. Kayse Shrum. Loughridge is to be replaced by Kevin Corbett, currently the CEO of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, and Shrum by Elizabeth Pollard, the deputy secretary of science and innovation.
New confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported at a total of 585 on Tuesday, breaking the record for a single-day increase. 13,757 Oklahomans are now confirmed to have been infected; 387 are known to have died.