Oklahoma may be reopening, but Breea Clark’s mind is already on what will happen if her state has to shut down again.
People in Oklahoma are “probably more unhealthy,” the mayor of Norman said, when compared to the rest of the country. There’s more diabetes and people are more overweight, she said, making the state’s citizens “more susceptible” during the coronavirus pandemic.
And with Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt easing statewide coronavirus restrictions in recent days, Clark can’t help but worry what the future holds.
“I'm sure he's trying to just get the economy going, but when we have to shut down again, that's going to be awful,” Clark, a Democrat, said. “It'll be twice as worse as it was before. And I'm hoping I'm wrong. Man, I'm hoping I'm wrong.”
The situation playing out in Oklahoma this week mirrors scattered discontent that appeared in other states like Mississippi and Georgia where unhappiness with the state leaders has been palpable from some on the local level as the pandemic reached different inflection points.
Oklahoma is just one of the states moving to re-open from the coronavirus despite the health crisis continuing to plague the nation. But the state’s reopening push, led by Stitt, has left some mayors questioning the rush while others feel pressured by neighboring cities moving more eagerly to also reopen their doors.
“The governor has said on the record that mayors are able to tailor their reopening plans to match their cities, but the facts are very clear: the data in Oklahoma supports a measured reopening,” Charlie Hannema, the governor’s spokesman, wrote in an email.
That approach hasn’t stopped it from being a difficult week in Stillwater, the home of Oklahoma State University, mayor Will Joyce said. If the city was on an island, he said "we probably wouldn't open at this point."
“With other places opening around us, that really hinders our ability to make much headway against the public health threat if we're the only entity,” Joyce said. “If our restaurants are shut down, but everybody else's are open, it's really difficult for us to make much of a difference in the fight.”
Despite the concerns back home, Stitt’s push has managed to avoid the public backlash that President Donald Trump levied last week at a similar plan from Georgia’s GOP governor.
During a press briefing last week, Trump said Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s move to let spas, beauty salons and barber shops opening starting April 24 was “just too soon.”
But on the same day Trump targeted the Georgia leader, Oklahoma’s Republican governor was outlining similar measures without anywhere near the conservative blowback that Kemp faced. That’s confounded some in Oklahoma who have clear reservations about the state’s reopening push.
Stitt’s office emphasized in an email Thursday that “the situations in Oklahoma and Georgia are markedly different.”
According to guidance released by Stitt’s office, “personal care businesses” like spas and barber shops were able to re-open for appointments starting last Friday “if they adhere to strict sanitation protocols and are in communities that do not have more restrictions in place.”
Starting this Friday that reopening list grows. Movie theaters, gyms and restaurant dining rooms can start back under similar restrictions, according to a release from the governor’s office, and tattoo parlors are permitted to resume work with appointments.
“We're not flipping on the light switch tomorrow,” Stitt said during a press conference Thursday about the phased reopening plan. “We're not going back to normal.”
But that doesn’t mean some cities are strictly following the governor’s outline.
Norman, home to the University of Oklahoma, has already outlined a gradual re-opening in the city with Friday as a start date. According to the plan, retail stores and restaurants dining sections are among the attractions that can re-open with strict limitations at that point. But hair and nail salons can only open for appointments with restrictions, at the earliest, starting May 15.
Issues with unemployment assistance reaching independent contractors in the state during the pandemic have particularly troubled Clark in her community.
She described having "email after email" of people in the close personal contact industry saying they're terrified to head back to work and asking her not to make them. But then there were others, she said, "saying I'm terrified to go back to work but I have to because I can barely feed my family."
“I feel like it is a sham that is endangering people who often depend on that close personal contact,” Clark said when asked about the governor’s re-opening salvo.
Though he’s escaped public scorn from Trump, Stitt has been quick to defend his decisions. His office touted in an email Thursday that the state’s “new cases are trending down and are at their lowest levels since April 4, even despite a 36% week-over-week increase in testing volume.”
And during a Fox News interview with Chris Wallace last Sunday, Stitt touted the state’s hospital capacity before saying "we understand that COVID is still here.”
“People are still going to get it, but Oklahomans are safe and we're ready for a measured re-opening,” Stitt said.
In phone calls to smaller cities in Oklahoma, some mayors avoided giving much of a reaction to the governor’s actions.
In one instance, the mayor of Alva, Oklahoma pointed to the state’s Open Up and Recover Safely plan instead of talking directly about the governor. He added that his city is following what the governor has passed on.
“It allows us to manage our own municipalities the way we see fit," Mayor Kelly Parker, a Republican, said. “It doesn't mandate that we follow it, but it gives us guidance if we want to."
Another local leader, Warr Acres Mayor James Mickley said he wasn’t sure he wanted to comment.
"I mean, I don't have a problem with it,” Mickley said in a brief phone call. “I just think it was a few days early and didn't give the mayors much notice on it. But other than that...I'd really rather not comment."
He then emphasized he was “100 percent behind the governor,” said the re-opening was “just fine,” and added he didn’t have any problems with what the governor was doing before hanging up the phone.
In other cases, it was more clear the governor is facing mixed emotions from some local leaders.
In an email to The Daily Beast, Jenks Mayor Robert Lee said available hospital capacity and the low number of confirmed COVID-19 cases “makes it difficult to justify continuing our shelter in place policy while businesses and the workforce are suffering.”
But the mayor of Jenks, a city near Tulsa, said “it’s debatable,” that the White House markers for reopening have been reached.
The governor’s office disputed that in an email, saying “the White House guidelines state four “gates” states should hit to reopen, and Oklahoma clearly hits each one of them.”
When it came to Stitt in particular, Lee simply said “we've been disappointed in the governor throughout this event.”
The governor’s social media approach was a point of concern for some as coronavirus fears grew in mid-March. One tweet, that has since been deleted, showed the governor eating at a busy restaurant and boasting that it was “packed” according to the Associated Press.
“Starting with tweeting selfies at crowded restaurants while we were urging people to stay in to flatten the curve, to being slow to the punch on securing PPE and testing, his response has been lacking,” Lee said. “When it came to shutdowns, he was adamant that it was up to mayors. When it came to reopening, he jumped in with little regard for what cities wanted.”