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. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Share:

Some currently shuttered businesses will be allowed to reopen in just two days and many others can reopen on May 1 under a plan unveiled today by Gov. Kevin Stitt.

The governor said the goals of the government-ordered closure of businesses have been achieved.

“The whole goal of this was to protect our hospital capacity, was to get prepared for the surge, was to flatten that curve, and Oklahomans we have done a fantastic job with that,” Stitt said. “The data says that we can do a measured rolling out at this point.”

Oklahoma hit its peak in COVID-19 hospitalizations on March 30 with 560 patients. As of the governor’s announcement on Wednesday, hospitalizations had dropped to 298. The number of hospital beds available for COVID-19 patients in Oklahoma is now 15 times that figure.

The rolling seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases has also fallen more than 200 since its early April peak.

“These numbers are trending down even as we continue to test more and more people across our state,” Stitt said.

The governor’s plan will include three phases.

In phase one, many currently shuttered businesses will be allowed to reopen, although Stitt said employees should be returned in phases and that common areas, such as break rooms, should remain closed.

Starting on Friday, April 24, personal care businesses—such as hair salons, barber shops, spas, nail salons, and pet groomers—will be allowed to reopen on an appointment-only basis while adhering to strict sanitation protocols. Both employees and customers will be required to wear masks, and customers will be expected to wait in their cars for an appointment rather than in a common waiting area.

Starting May 1, many other businesses will be allowed to reopen—including restaurants, movie theaters, sporting venues, gyms, and tattoo parlors. Again, those businesses will be required to operate under “strict” social-distancing and sanitation guidelines, Stitt said.

Also starting May 1, churches and other places of worship can reopen under social-distancing and sanitation guidelines, although nurseries should remain closed at those sites.

During phase one, business owners will be encouraged to have policies for temperature checks of employees.

If hospitalization and infection rates remain manageable for 14 days, phase two will commence. At that point, organized sporting events and bars can reopen, under similar safety guidelines as those imposed in phase one. Funerals and weddings involving more than 10 people will be again allowed at that time, and churches can reopen nurseries.

If COVID-19 rates and hospitalization remain manageable for another 14 days, phase three of the plan will commence. Stitt said more details on phase three will be unveiled prior to that time, which could arrive in late May or early June.

“Our plan is a measured approach and we will continue to watch the data each day, and will pull back if we need to,” Stitt said.

Business leaders who helped draft the plan alongside health experts praised the announcement.

Chad Warmington, president of the State Chamber of Oklahoma, noted that business leaders want to see the beginning of “restoration and restoring the economy,” but those conditions require reopening the state without fueling a huge increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“If you can’t open safely, we can’t get on to the restoration portion,” Warmington said.

The announcement was also welcome news to countless Oklahomans amidst the loss of thousands of jobs due to the COVID shutdown. An online petition by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, which calls for safely reopening state businesses, has surpassed 10,000 signatures in less than a week.

Stitt said continued testing and tracing of COVID-19 will be a priority as state businesses reopen, noting that the virus is expected to remain a problem for many months.

“We know that this virus will continue to be around for a long time,” Stitt said. “We’re not out of the woods yet. This virus is still in the United States. It’s still in Oklahoma. People will still come in contact with this virus. That is why social distancing and taking precautions like wearing a mask is still really important as we continue to take a measured approach.”

Stitt said he has discussed the reopening plan with city officials across the state and that there’s “broad buy-in” for a statewide phase one reopening on May 1. Mayors will have some latitude on whether to allow personal care businesses to reopen before May 1.

On Twitter, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said he and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and officials with the  Oklahoma Municipal League “have been in constant communication with the Governor this last week as he has developed a statewide vision for a new phase in pandemic response. We are very appreciative for that line of communication with the Governor.”

Holt went on to say that personal care services in Oklahoma City would remain closed through April 30, but added, “We dearly hope that public health data allows Oklahoma City to consider entering that new phase on May 1st as the Governor has envisioned.”

Norman Mayor Breea Clark took a different tack in a message she tweeted to Stitt, saying, “You may be willing to risk lives by moving forward without proper testing or a plan for contact tracing, but I’m not.”

Under Clark, Norman has implemented some of the most extreme measures seen statewide, including ordering the closure of a waste-disposal business declared “essential” by the federal and state governments, and threatening citizens with 60 days’ jail time and a $750 fine if they shop for groceries on the wrong day of the week.

Even as she vowed to keep businesses closed, Clark decried the loss of city tax revenue created by her shutdown order and urged state officials to allow cities to impose new taxes on citizens.

“We are the ONLY state in the nation that ties cities to sales tax to support our general funds the way that we do,” Clark tweeted. “It has NEVER been a good system, but the economic fallout from this pandemic is further highlighting why this constitutional provision MUST CHANGE.”

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, decried efforts to reopen the state economy in a statement. “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,” Virgin said. “However, in this time of uncertainty, it is crucial not to make decisions hastily and out of fear but out of fact.”

She said additional testing and tracing is needed before businesses reopen and urged the governor “to reconsider” his decision.

Other lawmakers appeared far more supportive, such as state Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, who has filed legislation to create the “Oklahoma Return to Work and Bill of Rights Conformity Act.”

Dahm’s legislation, announced prior to Stitt’s announcement, includes provisions to address social distancing, encourage innovation, provide businesses access to signage conveying health safety guidelines, limit liability for businesses that open, and encourage sick leave for those with COVID-19 symptoms. It also includes a provision that would prohibit local cities and counties from forcing businesses to close.

“I’ve heard from business owners and workers throughout my district and across the state who are at a point of desperation,” Dahm said. “Oklahoma has made huge gains to protect our hospitals from being overloaded, and it’s now time we allow those who desire to get back to work to do so in a safe manner.”

While stressing that continued anti-COVID-19 efforts must continue, Stitt indicated the worst of the event may soon be over.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” Stitt said, “and it’s starting to get brighter every single day as we do more testing and we continue to watch those curves flatten.”

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Share: