After 1,600 deaths and counting, mask mandate remains flashpoint in Oklahoma
November 26, 2020
A masked Gov. Kevin Stitt walked into a roomful of masked reporters at the Oklahoma Capitol, sat down at the head of a conference table and removed his mask.
Flanked by his health commissioner and a hospital surge plan advisor, who both wore masks, Stitt was there to answer questions about the state's coronavirus response. What he did in those first moments spoke volumes: a disjointed message on masks.
Nationwide, 37 states have a statewide mask mandate, with Iowa the latest state to put one into effect. In a seven-state region that includes Oklahoma, only it and Missouri are without statewide mask mandates.
To be fair, Stitt isn't anti-mask. He's recommended mask wearing, along with social distancing and washing hands, in his public health messages around the coronavirus since the summer. Stitt said a statewide mask mandate would be hard to enforce and it should be a decision left to local leaders.
Eight months into the pandemic, masks remain a flashpoint. That's flummoxed public health officials, who thought a relatively minor inconvenience to inhibit the spread of an airborne virus would not become a political talking point. Elected leaders in some cities continue to grapple with the right balance of promoting a key public health message without alienating a minority of residents who downplay the virus.
Stitt has been an inconsistent messenger on masks since the state's first confirmed coronavirus case in March. The governor rarely showed up to events wearing a mask in April and May, when the state was focused on its reopening plans after a brief shutdown. And at an indoor rally in Tulsa for President Donald Trump in June, a maskless Stitt sat on stage with other elected officials, most of whom were also not wearing masks. In recent months, Stitt appears at public events wearing a mask, only to quickly take it off if he's speaking.
Medical and public health leaders have consistently called for mask mandates, including the Oklahoma State Medical Association. A statewide mask mandate would give political cover to local officials who want people in their communities to wear masks but lack the political will or the votes to get it done. The weekly reports from the White House's coronavirus task force have recommended several times that Oklahoma institute a statewide mask mandate.
Still, Oklahomans are weary of the pandemic and some object to what they think is fear-mongering by mask-mandate advocates. The latest virus surge is happening in states with and without statewide mask mandates. Stitt and his advisors prefer to focus on mask participation than any mandate, and Stitt has grown weary of being asked the question at press conferences.
"Oklahoma has been fully reopened for six months," Stitt said at a Nov. 19 press briefing. "We're seeing our cases go up and not as fast as some of these shutdown states. It's a virus. If I could wave my magic wand to make it totally disappear in Oklahoma, I would do it. But again, I don't think it's about magic words. I think it's about compliance and social distancing and those types of things like washing your hands and staying at home if you're exposed."
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. The organization's website is at http://www.oklahomawatch.org.