During a Tuesday morning news conference at the Oklahoma State Capitol, Oklahoma House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) called on Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt to implement a statewide mask mandate.
Virgin also called on the state legislature to extend the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act exemption for in-person public meetings, citing Senate Bill 661, which passed in March. The senate bill allows public bodies to hold meetings virtually in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and expires Nov. 15, prompting House Democrats to ask for an extension, Virgin said at the conference.
“When this legislation was passed, Oklahoma’s daily COVID-19 case numbers were in the twenties,” Virgin said at the press conference. “Now we’re averaging more than 2,000 per day.”
Virgin said at the time the bill was passed, there were zero COVID-19 deaths in Oklahoma. Now, more than 1,400 Oklahomans have died from the virus since the pandemic began.
“All of this is why the House Democrats are calling for a special session to extend this provision of the Oklahoma Open Meetings Act,” Virgin said in the conference. “There’s no reason that we should force public bodies and the citizens participating in these meetings to revert back to physical meetings when this provision has served everyone very well during the time of COVID-19.”
Virgin said in her representative city, Norman, she had discussed the provision with Mayor Breea Clark, who Virgin said insisted the need for virtual meetings amid the pandemic “is real.”
“Mayors and councilmembers who are sick or having to quarantine will be unable to participate if we’re forced to return in person,” Virgin said in the conference, “which means thousands of Oklahomans could go unrepresented in the day-to-day business of their cities.”
Clark also said forcing in-person meetings puts members of these bodies, as well as their families, at risk by “routinely exposing ourselves to large crowds of people outside our home,” according to Virgin.
“Most representatives at the municipal level are essentially volunteers,” Clark said to Virgin. “Asking them to give their time and resources to serve their communities is fine but asking them to risk their health as well is just too much.”
Virgin said she was contacted by students from the OU Student Government Association, which would also be forced to return to in-person meetings should the exemption expire. Virgin said student government meetings are conducted online which is where members would “desperately like to continue,” considering the transition to all-online classes following Thanksgiving Break.
Virgin said the House Democratic Caucus wants to “strongly reiterate” its call for a statewide mask mandate from either Stitt or legislative leaders during a special session. This call comes ahead of a Stitt COVID-19 update to be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
“There have been more than 1,400 COVID deaths in Oklahoma and the governor has not come up with a single plan to keep that number from getting to 2,000,” Virgin said in the conference. “This is a total failure in leadership.”
Virgin said the initial issue of a mask mandate was a “matter of freedom,” but cited seatbelt laws and said it was not an issue of freedom, but rather “an issue of public safety and saving lives.”
“Then, the governor told us that it would be impossible to enforce,” Virgin said in the conference. “That argument doesn’t work either because 35 states have found a way to issue a mask mandate and enforce it.”
According to Virgin, Stitt’s administration has questioned whether Oklahoma citizens will actually wear a mask if a mask mandate were to be enacted. Virgin said she has peer reviewed studies that prove otherwise.
“The state’s own epidemiology report shows that the virus is spreading slower in communities with mask orders than in those without,” Virgin said in the conference. “The governor is frankly running out of excuses for his failed leadership and Oklahomans are dying as he does.”
Virgin said the circumstances in Oklahoma are “unacceptable” and “shows a disregard for human life.”
“When we see each day’s numbers increasing, I want to remind Oklahomans, the governor, my legislative colleagues, that these are not just numbers,” Virgin said in the conference. “These are Oklahomans who are suffering. These are families who are cut off from caring for their loved ones or even being by their side in the hospital.”
Virgin said the matter has become personal to her, referencing her parents who had contracted the virus, causing them to be hospitalized.
“I know personally what families all across Oklahoma are going through,” Virgin said in the conference. “Trying to get information about your loved ones from nurses and doctors who are incredibly overworked, who have more patients that they have ever dealt with, and not being able to be by the side of your loved one and comfort them and advocate for them because this virus keeps us all away.”
Virgin said although her parents are now at home and doing well, many Oklahomans are not able to stay home from work for an extended period of time as did her parents.
“As Republican (Tulsa) Mayor G.T. Bynum said yesterday, ‘Tulsans cannot fight this on our own,’” Virgin said in the conference. “I again implore the state and our neighboring communities to listen to those medical professionals asking for steps to be taken that will slow the spread of this virus.”
Virgin said Stitt has asked Oklahomans to “do the right thing and protect each other” but asked Stitt himself to “do the right thing.”
“Protect Oklahomans by enacting a statewide mask order,” Virgin said in the conference. “If the governors of surrounding states and other red states like Utah can make this decision, you can too. It’s time to stop the political pandering, it’s time to stop worrying about getting reelected, it’s time to do what’s right to save the lives of Oklahomans.”