Stopping short of a statewide mask mandate Monday, Oklahoma's governor announced requiring face coverings on state property and said bar and restaurant hours will temporarily be limited in an attempt to slow the surging number of COVID-19 cases.
Starting Thursday, all bars and restaurants will be required to close by 11 p.m. — except for curbside and drive-thru services — and every eating establishment must space their tables at least 6 feet apart or install dividers in a bid to ensure social distancing, said Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt.
“What we’re announcing today won’t last forever,” he said. “But they’re targeted steps that we can do to keep Oklahomans healthy, to keep our businesses open safely and to keep our kids back in school in person. The reality is these steps, they’re not magic bullets. It’s up to all of us.”
Stitt said the new mandates are necessary to protect the health and lives of Oklahomans. Statewide, the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow and the number of hospitalized residents has gone up 19% in a week.
He said his new executive orders are aimed at promoting three goals — protecting the life of Oklahomans, keeping businesses open safely and getting children back into the classroom for in-person learning in early 2021.
“We’re going to keep our businesses open safely, and we want to get all kids back in school at the end of Christmas break,” Stitt said. “In-person learning is so important to the development and mental health of our children.”
The new mask mandate also will require all visitors and 33,000 state employees to wear a face covering while on state property, he said.
Stitt said his staff met with their analytics team — including Google — to determine what steps would lower and flatten the curve. Closing bars after 11 p.m. and ensuring restaurants are practicing social distancing were the two areas recommended.
Though Stitt said he’s not worried about compliance, he said the state has the ability to pull licenses for noncompliant businesses.
Jim Hopper, president of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, said his industry also will request that all restaurant workers wear masks while on shift and when not working. He urged Oklahomans to continue supporting restaurants whether by dining in or ordering out.
“We’re committed to doing our part as an industry while continuing to operate our businesses safely,” Hopper said.
Legislative leaders quickly followed suit and said they’d also require masks be worn inside the state Capitol.
“Masks are an effective way to slow the transmission of COVID-19, and each of us should wear one when appropriate,” said Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, president pro tem of the state Senate. “I appreciate Gov. Stitt for taking measures to protect public health. This is a serious disease. We should all take it seriously and take the necessary steps to protect our neighbors and ourselves.”
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said a mask mandate inside the Capitol is a “reasonable precaution with case counts rising in Oklahoma County and statewide.”
Stitt, though, sidestepped a question about what harm would occur when imposing a statewide mask mandate — even if the officials had no enforcement ability.
He said the issue of instituting mask mandates isn’t about “magic words,” but about doing the right thing. He said he's encouraging all municipalities to implement mask requirements if they’re seeing cases rise. Stitt said he also plans to implement a call every day with statewide elected officials giving them hot spot data and steps to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“Again, we’ve said wear a mask since March. A hundred times,” Stitt said.
Dr. Lance Frye, the state’s health commissioner, said he couldn’t mandate masks when asked the same question about what harm would come from passing a mask mandate.
“I can recommend it,” he said. “I just can’t mandate it. And we do recommend it, absolutely.”
Frye said he recommends everyone in the state wear a mask, but stopped short of embracing a mandate, saying it “is a semantics on words.”
Dr. George Monks, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said he’s “pleased to see the small changes” announced Monday and the “incremental steps” can make a difference in the fight against coronavirus.
“While protecting state employees is a laudable goal, we need to do more to protect all Oklahomans,” he said. “Our health care system is already stretched thin and with holiday gatherings coming up, things are likely to get worse before they get better. OSMA will continue to call for more measures that can help mitigate this virus, including universal masking and efforts to attract nurses and physicians from other states to come to Oklahoma. We cannot wait until we have another spike in cases. These actions must be enacted now.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.