Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman.

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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Gov. Kevin Stitt has ordered the closure of “nonessential” businesses in the 19 Oklahoma counties that have at least one confirmed positive COVID-19/coronavirus case. Those employers must stay closed for the next 21 days.

“In those 19 counties, all nonessential businesses must close by 11:59 tomorrow and remain closed for 21 days,” Stitt said. “These include businesses with close contact or personal touch, like hair salons, gyms, theaters, massage parlors, tattoo parlors.”

The order will be expanded to include other counties if COVID-19/coronavirus cases occur elsewhere.

Stitt also issued a “safer at home” order that encourages elderly and vulnerable populations to not leave their homes, other than to get food or go to the pharmacy, until April 30.

A statewide ban on gatherings of 10 or more people will be implemented under another order.

Stitt specifically encouraged restaurants to remain open, but only if they limit themselves to curbside and drive-through service.

The governor said White House guidance will determine what businesses are essential, but “in general terms, a ‘non-essential business’ would be a social-gathering type business.”

One recent federal document states that “essential” businesses include “staffing operations centers, maintaining and repairing critical infrastructure, operating call centers, working construction, and performing management functions, among others. The industries they support represent, but are not necessarily limited to, medical and healthcare, telecommunications, information technology systems, defense, food and agriculture, transportation and logistics, energy, water and wastewater, law enforcement, and public works.”

That federal list includes as “essential” retail grocery stores, pharmacies, medical workers, individuals working in any part of the distribution chain for goods and products that fall into the “essential” category, law enforcement, agricultural workers, electricians, petroleum industry workers, gas station employees, plumbers, exterminators, media outlets, and more.

In other states with similar orders, liquor stores have been included in the list of “essential” businesses, and pawn shops have been allowed to remain open as financial institutions.

However, the broad definitions used by federal and state governments have created confusion and had ripple effects throughout the supply chain in other states, leading to calls to carve out more companies from the closure mandate. For example, steel mills have been allowed to remain in operation, but metal fabricators and producers of limestone that are used in blast furnaces have not.

The National Retail Federation has asked for national guidance to clarify which retail businesses and services are considered “essential.”

“Unfortunately, there remains a need for clear national guidance to resolve questions caused by a number of conflicting state and local orders that are triggering consumer, worker, and business confusion, leading to cascading negative impacts on communities across the country,” wrote National Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Our members report that towns, cities, and counties are deviating from instructions offered by governors and state agencies.”

The NRF cited problems that ranged from localities declaring sellers of pet food and medicines to be “non-essential” to communities that declared the distribution centers serving retailers were “nonessential.”

The NRF also warned that closure orders contribute to supply shortages by inducing panic buying.

“When state and local governments give blanket orders to ‘close non-essential retail’ and ‘limit mass gatherings to 50 people,’ it causes panic and alarm,” Shay wrote. “Consumers then swarm retailers, which exhausts existing supplies and overwhelms employees.”

Stitt said the business-closure order will be reassessed by April 14.

“This is a 21-day period and then we’re going to re-evaluate,” Stitt said, “so we’re trying to put some certainty around that.”

Stitt also said officials are working on a plan to designate two hospitals in the state as the designated treatment sites for COVID-19/coronavirus patients.

“This will allow us to maximize our resources to protect our health care workers and the patients who need them,” Stitt said.

“We believe that having designated hospitals allows us to make sure that—if we have two hospitals—that those patients in those hospitals that have heavy loads can have the ventilators, the PPE (personal protective equipment), the expertise and the experience in those hospitals to manage those patients efficiently, and that we can provide the support that those hospitals need as a priority,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Science and Innovation Kayse Shrum.

Stitt said the number of COVID-19/coronavirus cases in Oklahoma is likely “over 500 right now” but “going to get into the thousands.” Oklahoma’s state population totals close to 4 million. Currently, the number of people left unemployed by forced business closures is believed to far exceed the number of COVID-19/coronavirus cases.

“I don’t make these decisions lightly,” Stitt said. “I know this affects all 4 million Oklahomans. You know, I’m concerned about the health care workers that are on the front line. I’m also concerned about the single mother who is trying to support three children, who works paycheck to paycheck, and through no fault of her own, is now getting on unemployment.”

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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