Governor Kevin Stitt says Oklahoma's COVID-19 infections peaked on March 30 with 530 hospitalizations and have been on a steady decline during the month of April.
In a press conference Wednesday, he said this meets the first requirement set forth by the White House to start reopening the state’s economy and that he will change his executive order to allow some non-essential businesses to start offering services on April 24.
Under phase one of his plan, personal care businesses such as hair nail salons, groomers and massage therapists will be able to open this Friday, except in cities with more restrictive orders. Those businesses in Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Norman, Stillwater and other cities that have orders extending until May 1 will have to wait until that date.
The businesses that do reopen are expected to follow social distancing guidelines set forth by their industry associations, though the Governor did say it will be on the honor system with no enforcement mechanism. The additional safety protocol includes customers and service workers wearing masks when social distancing isn't possible, only accepting customers by appointment, asking people to wait in their cars until they are called for their appointment and sanitizing the area after each customer visits.
On May 1, gyms, sports venues, churches, movie theaters and restaurants will be able to reopen, if they follow sanitation and social distancing guidelines. In churches, this includes keeping space between people in attendance, asking staff to wear masks, not serving food or drinks and keeping church nurseries closed.
Bars will remain closed during this phase. Also, nonessential travel will still be discouraged. Employers will be allowed to reopen offices, but they are asked to do so in phases, letting a few employees come back at a time. Common areas such as break rooms will need to remain closed. The ‘Safer at Home’ order asking people to stay home if they are over the age of 65 or have health conditions that may make them more susceptible to the virus will still be in place.
Stitt told reporters that the state will focus on testing and tracing infected people to control the spread of the virus and that if infections and hospitalizations remain steady or decline, the next phase of opening the economy will begin on May 14.
The second phase will allow bars to reopen, if distance can be maintained between standing customers. Funerals, weddings, sports events and other gatherings of more than 10 people will be allowed to happen, and church nurseries will be allowed to reopen.
If hospitalizations remain manageable and within the state’s capacity, then the next phase will happen on May 28. The governor said more details about Phase Three will be available at a later date.
“We will watch data every day, and we will pull back if we need to,” Stitt said.
While the plan was welcome news for some business owners, the pushback from others was swift.
“The governor’s decision to reopen Oklahoma businesses early comes from a place of fear, and it is understandable for him to be worried about the long-term economic effects of this pandemic,” said Emily Virgin, Oklahoma House of Representatives Minority Leader. “However, in this time of uncertainty, it is crucial not to make decisions hastily and out of fear but out of fact.”
Virgin, a Democrat, urged Stitt to wait until better data is available from testing.
A report issued from the White House on Wednesday indicates Oklahoma is one of four states testing the fewest number of people. When asked about that report, Oklahoma Secretary of Science and Innovation, Dr. Kayse Shrum said the state is clarifying its data with the Trump Administration.
The mayors of some of Oklahoma's largest cities also pushed back against Stitt's opening of some businesses prior to the original date of May 1.
“As was announced three weeks ago, and in the interest of public health, our city's shelter in place proclamation lasts through April 30th, as does the closure of personal care services, said David Holt, Oklahoma City mayor. “On the advice of our local public health experts, it is our intent to follow the spirit of the White House criteria for potentially entering a new phase after April 30th.”
Holt went on to say that he hoped public health data would allow Oklahoma City to proceed with Stitt’s vision, but he left the possibility open that local closures would last longer.
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