OKLAHOMA CITY — Facing growing pressure to jump-start the state’s economy, Oklahoma’s governor said he’s working on a plan to slowly reopen the state’s shuttered businesses and get people back to work.
But Gov. Kevin Stitt acknowledged Wednesday that officials were wrestling with how to resurrect the economy without inadvertently jeopardizing public health. Oklahoma’s social distancing and stay home policies are working to slow the spread of the deadly virus, he said.
“I know that Oklahomans are frustrated, ready to get life back to normal,” he said. “Our plan is to do it safely.”
Stitt said nonessential businesses must remain shuttered until at least April 30. In the meantime, Oklahomans need to social distance as much as possible. The state’s behavior over the next three weeks will determine the path for Oklahoma, where cases are now expected to peak April 30.
“We are working on plans to reopen our state,” Stitt said. “But let me be clear: We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Health officials want to avoid slowly opening things up May 1 only to see a spike in cases, he said.
Stitt said he’s basing the state’s reopening plans on what’s happening in Oklahoma, the bed capacities of hospitals and recommendations from federal and state health experts. Stitt said he’s been in constant contact with other governors across the region, but said he’s making decisions based on what’s happening in Oklahoma — not other states.
As of Thursday morning, COVID-19 pandemic had killed 131 Oklahomans and hospitalized 528. The number of confirmed cases grew to 2,357.
Stitt said hospitals, which have been struggling financially, are expected to be the first to sector to see restrictions lifted.
Starting April 24, medical facilities again will be able to perform elective surgeries.
Health officials are continuing to develop strategies for other businesses like restaurants, barber shops, museums and other places where large crowds gather.
“Do we need to test all the workers at a restaurant?” he asked. “Do they mask up? Do we spread the tables apart, 6 feet apart? All those things we’re working on to slowly step back in to more of a normal business life.”
Stitt, though, is also facing pressure from within his own party to get Oklahomans back to work.
State Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, said he supported closing businesses and Oklahoma’s large economic contraction to reduce the death count. But now all the precautions are working and things are getting better, he said in an email.
He’s pressing the governor to consider “turning the economy loose next month.”
“Perhaps at this time, we may ask if it is OK to examine some of these precautions and balance them against the economic effects of our precautions,” he said. “People are hurting financially and economically.
"What has happened to many people is heartbreaking. Can we include their concerns in the mix, as we consider how to handle the overall situation?”
The longer Oklahoma waits to restart the economy, the harder it will be for it to rebound to a healthy state, he said.
State Rep. Sean Roberts, R-Hominy, also said it’s time to get the state’s economy back on track and let Oklahomans return to work.
“I further believe we can accomplish this while still using common sense social distancing practices,” he said this week.
On Thursday, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs announced launching a petition calling on state and local officials to begin lifting “oppressive orders” by May 1. The petition calls for businesses to continue implementing safety measures to reduce the chance of COVID-19 spread.
It wasn’t clear how many Oklahomans had signed on to it.
“The extreme measures imposed by state and local governments were to make certain that hospitals would not be overloaded by COVID-19 patients,” said Jonathan Small, president of the conservative-leaning think tank, in a statement.
“There is no longer any valid reason to fear that scenario,” he said. “Therefore, it is time to allow people to return to work. The longer officials drag this out, the greater the number of employers that will be forced to close their doors forever and the greater the unnecessary financial devastation for working Oklahomans who lose their jobs.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.