Gov. Kevin Stitt, and several other prominent state officials, gathered at the McKnight Center on Tuesday morning for a COVID-19 update and press conference.
The event was open to members of the press, but not the public at large. Stitt confirmed during the conference that the gathering had been called to address Payne County’s shift from “yellow” to “orange” on the COVID-19 Alert System.
On the day of the gathering, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 272 known active cases in Stillwater. For more details on the day’s COVID-19 cases, see The O’Colly’s daily update.
The press conference was held at the McKnight center, and all attendees seemed to honor the university’s face-covering mandate. However, all of the state officials, with the exception of State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, removed their face coverings when they stepped up to the microphone.
Seating at the event was limited, and spread out to promote social distancing, although the number of available seats had to be slightly expanded to accommodate everyone in attendance.
The main theme the governor emphasized throughout the conference was personal responsibility.
“This is about choices, this is about personal responsibility, it’s about taking things seriously, versus mandates,” Stitt said.
Although the governor made clear he did not support a statewide mask mandate, he did speak repeatedly in favor of voluntary mask-wearing.
“I’m here today to ask Oklahomans to do the three W’s, and that’s wash your hands, watch your distance, and wear a mask,” Stitt said.
When it was her turn to speak, Hofmeister also talked briefly about the importance of local control.
“We know this is a time where we are relying on our local leaders,” Hofmeister said.
She then directly thanked President Burns Hargis, and Stillwater Public Schools Superintendent Marc Moore, for their leadership during this time.
Hofmeister said in Oklahoma, in-person options were notably more popular than virtual instruction.
“The vast majority of Oklahoma public schools, 75%, have opened offering full time in-person instruction, Hofmeister said. “Less than 8% of districts opted to open with virtual only. These are difficult, often gut-wrenching decisions for districts to make.”
Hofmeister pointed out that schools are also a safe place for many children, and offer nutritional meals for students who may not have enough to eat at home.
“There are many reasons that in-person learning and instruction is so critical for education,” Hofmeister said. “Not the least of which is the impact of face-to-face instruction with a teacher.”
Stitt wanted to remind Oklahomans that this pandemic is serious, but educating young people was a necessity. He frequently spoke in favor of local control, including the decision to open in-person versus virtually.
“Seventy-five percent of school districts in Oklahoma are in person, and that’s fantastic,” Stitt said. “You look at other states, and we are way way ahead of other states.”
When asked about further steps that the state government, or local governments could take to help slow the spread of the virus, Stitt again emphasized the role of the individual.
“Again, we have to take personal responsibility. That’s why we’re here in Stillwater,” Stitt said. “We’re going to be in another city here in a next couple of days, because if a city goes from yellow to orange, we want to be here to remind everybody in Payne County and the City of Stillwater to do your part to slow this spread.”
Stitt said he would encourage Oklahomans to wear masks, but a statewide mandate just isn’t something he believes in.
“If there’s anything that somebody could do to snap their fingers to make the cases go down to zero, we would do that all across the United States,” Stitt said. “but, it comes down to personal responsibility and I believe Oklahomans are doing a really good job of that.”
Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater, was also in attendance, and said she was disappointed that the governor continues to resist a statewide mask mandate.
“I was disheartened a bit to see not a statewide mask mandate,” Ranson said. “However, I do understand that there are communities that are not hit as hard as Stillwater is being hit at the current time.
Ranson said Stillwater’s mask mandate is a positive step, and now it’s time to make sure everyone is following that mandate.
She also called for updating the way Oklahoma handles the daily positivity counts, to enable decision making based off of the most accurate information. Rapid antigen tests are not currently counted, but should be, Ranson said. She said the tests have a high false negative rate, but the positive results of those tests are actually quite accurate.
“I think what the local leaders here are looking for is a little support from the state level, and they’re not getting that,” Ranson said.
Editors note: This article was updated on Aug. 2 at 10:20 a.m. to correct a typo in the third paragraph. The words "the" and "cases" were added to the last sentence, and no other changes were made.