301.519.9237 exdirector@nesaus.org

4.18.20 – The Oklahoman – by CHRIS CASTEEL

Gov. Kevin Stitt said Friday that restaurants and some other businesses currently deemed nonessential may begin opening in early May and that he was working with churches on a timeline for resuming services.

“The restaurants that are working up their plans — it will look a little different at first,” Stitt said at a news conference in Oklahoma City. “We’re going to have tables spaced out, etcetera, etcetera, and then we’ll continue to monitor and it’ll just over time get back to normal.

“So I can’t give you an exact timeline but we will start stepping back into a more normal way of life sometime in the month of May and early May, hopefully.”

Jim Hopper, president and CEO of the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, said Friday, “At the governor’s request we have shared with him some ideas about what it would take to get restaurants up and running when he announces that the time is right to do that.

“We will be working with the governor and health officials on this so that our guests and our employees will have the confidence that eating out is once again a safe activity for them. Our industry will most certainly be unified in these efforts. As you can imagine, the restaurant industry has been damaged by this pandemic more than any other industry. We are more than eager to reopen when the time is right.”

A day after governors spoke with President Donald Trump about opening businesses and resuming some activities, Stitt said such moves would be phased in after his order that closed nonessential businesses statewide expires on April 30. If current trends in new cases, hospitalizations and other factors continue as now, businesses will be given guidance next week about reopening, he said.

The governor and his top public health advisers said at the news conference that a number of steps would contribute to the resumption of activities:

• More testing and more personnel to trace contacts with confirmed cases. He acknowledged some people were still having trouble getting tested and said two more mobile testing sites will be opened in Tulsa.

Oklahoma Secretary of Health Jerome Loughridge said contact tracing “is an important part both from a public health standpoint and as we think again about putting people back into the workplace.”

• Wider testing for antibodies to determine how prevalent the disease is among people who may not have experienced symptoms.

Kayse Shrum, secretary for Science and Innovation, said antibody tests are “very helpful to us as we look at the prevalence of infection within the population.”

• And an intense focus on protecting the elderly in long-term care facilities, where outbreaks have occurred in several counties.

“That’s where a third of the deaths — of the 136 deaths in Oklahoma — have come from,” Stitt said. “We know our elderly Oklahomans and people with underlying health conditions are at a greater risk and we will continue to protect them even as we allow our healthy Oklahomans to begin the process of returning to work.”

The Oklahoma Department of Health on Friday reported five additional deaths related to COVID-19, all 65 or older, raising the total to 136. The number of confirmed cases rose by 108 to 2,465.

In a briefing on Friday, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said Trump’s new guidelines meant that Oklahoma City, which is under a shelter-in-place order, couldn’t move into a multiphased reopening until new cases declined for two weeks, there was robust testing for health care workers and confidence that hospitals were handling the situation.

Holt said he asked his public health advisory group to analyze the guidelines and that he would continue working with Stitt and Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum.

“We will continue to prioritize life and we will continue to rely on basic principles of science,” Holt said.

Stitt said he spoke with church leaders Friday morning about a timetable for resuming services.

“I encouraged them to set up their guidelines, their guidance, on how they want to safely reopen,” Stitt said. “And, again, we’re going to monitor the data and we’re going to come up with a great plan that protects public health, protects safety and then starts to ease back into a more normal way of life as we’re watching the scientific data roll into the state of Oklahoma.”

Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, said leaders, though not bound by state or local lockdowns, have been heeding concerns of public health officials.

The question, he said, is: “Can we put protocols in place that allow people to take communion while keeping safe distance?”

Shannon Fleck, executive director at the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, said cases aren’t expected to peak in Oklahoma until April 30 and that May 3 would be too soon to resume services.

“Until we can come together and be morally and ethically confident that we’re not harming our people, we hesitate to reopen,” Fleck said.