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'The Legislature owns that budget': Gov. Kevin Stitt says he has put veto overrides behind him

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt has put Wednesday’s historic overrides on his four budget bill vetoes behind him, he said Thursday.

On Wednesday, the Republican governor vetoed four bills, including the $7.7 billion general appropriations budget bill.

Within hours, the GOP-controlled Legislature had overridden all four by the required two-thirds vote.

Stitt held a Capitol news conference Thursday on the state’s COVID-19 response and was asked about the overrides.

“That kind of is in the past for me,” Stitt said. “And I wasn’t going to put my name on a budget that had a $1 billion structural deficit, so I am glad that is in the past.

“They overrode it. The Legislature owns that budget. The facts are the facts.”

Stitt continued, saying: “I feel fantastic, actually. I feel great today. I shared with Oklahomans my reasons for vetoing it. The Legislature disagreed with me, and they have got to answer to Oklahomans for that.”

Stitt said he didn’t think it was right to use money slated for roads and pension funds to balance the budget.

Lawmakers took $180 million out of roads funds but allowed the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to issue bonds for $200 million. The state’s eight-year road program is not expected to be affected, according to lawmakers.

In addition, they reduced by 25 percent the additional dollars they had been putting into several state pension systems but didn’t touch the corpus or benefits.

Lawmakers accused Stitt’s budget secretary, Mike Mazzei, of walking out of budget negotiations after the lawmakers refused to comply with his demands. Stitt said he was “boxed out” of negotiations.

Stitt said Thursday that he was elected by all 4 million Oklahomans but had zero input into the budget.

Nov. 6, 2018, general election results show that Stitt garnered 644,579 votes, defeating Democrat Drew Edmondson, who garnered 500,973 votes, and Libertarian Chris Powell, who drew 40,833 votes.

The governor and legislative leaders have had a rocky relationship this session.

Stitt said he has no hard feelings and considers lawmakers his colleagues and friends.

“I am not a politician, so I do not understand getting back and forth with each other,” he said.

Under questioning, he said his relationship with some of the legislative leaders may be rocky, but he said his relationship with most lawmakers is fine.

Stitt noted that seven months from now the state will be dealing with the fiscal year 2022 budget.

“I think I am going to be proven correct that we have got some structural problems and we should have addressed them this year instead of borrowing some one-time funds. Again. I have moved on.”


Gov. Stitt says Oklahoma is ready for Phase 2 on Friday. A look at the numbers he’s using to support that claim


Sports
Sports can start returning Friday, but not how they were before March 12

Sports are starting to reemerge again in the Tulsa area, but not how they were remembered before COVID-19.

It was March 12 when white sheets of paper were taped on the Mabee Center doors to alert the public that the state basketball tournament had been called off because of COVID-19 precautions. That was the local impact, while sports from all NCAA athletic events to every major professional sports league in the United States was canceled or postponed.

The next morning, the Tulsa World’s front sports page was headlined with, “THE DAY SPORTS STOPPED,” and they did in the Tulsa area, for 57 days.

The start of Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Phase 2 of the state reopening Friday means organized sports activities can resume and operate under proper social distancing and sanitation protocols.

In a Thursday press conference, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said sports groups will be allowed to practice on fields (complexes and open fields) starting Friday, as long as 25 or fewer people are on the field. Under the new Civil Emergency in Tulsa, groups of 50 or fewer are allowed to gather and the city will issue special event permits for events with fewer than 50 people.

“For organized sports opening up (Friday), our locally branded guidelines follow the recommendations from the state of Oklahoma,” said Lori Just, marketing and public relations director for Tulsa Health Department. “These focus on at-home temperature checks for players, coaches and officials before each practice or game. Those with a temperature above 100.4 are recommended to stay home. Social distancing practices need to be in place between spectators. Cloth face coverings are also recommended, and handshakes, high fives and fist bumps are discouraged. All sports equipment should be cleaned and sanitized at regular intervals. Increased hand washing is recommended or the use of hand sanitizer with an alcohol content over 60%.”

Youth baseball and softball tournaments are some of the first sporting events returning this weekend. Local tournaments include a USSSA Fastpitch sanctioned tournament in Jenks and Coweta, and the Mid-May Shootout in Owasso, hosted by Owasso Premier Softball.

“Well, to be honest with you, the biggest thing was just the people that were reaching out were just so ready to play,” Owasso Premier Softball President Jace Sanchez said. “There were other people — other organizations and stuff — that are allowed to be open. Since Owasso’s following the guidelines of Governor Stitt, we were allowed to open up our park with extra safety precautions and stuff.

“There was such a need to play that people were kind of looking for a place to go, and we figured if we’re allowed to play and we’re going to take safety measures, why not play in Owasso?”

It was raining as Sanchez talked to the Tulsa World for a phone interview Tuesday, making him worried the start of the season was going to be delayed another week. This is Sanchez’s first season serving as the organization’s president, and rain delays were a situation he was prepared to handle, but he never imagined preparing the softball complex for the return from a pandemic.

Precautions at this weekend’s tournament include no admission at the gate (admission will be online only to avoid the exchange of money), enforced social distancing for those in attendance, sanitizing equipment more often, including wiping down the ball and bats frequently, one umpire behind the mound instead of using two umpires with one behind the catcher, and no sunflower seeds allowed.

“Just having that ability to open it up to maybe give people some relief from all the stress that’s been built up over sitting at home or doing the same old routine every day, I feel like it’s important for us to just give that opportunity,” Sanchez said. “From there we can go on with whatever has to happen. We’ll play as many games as we can; we’ll have as many teams as we can, following our guidelines and stuff. Just giving people the opportunity to play is what I find intriguing about it.”

Although Phase 2 starts Friday, the first known sporting event in Tulsa happened a week before. The Osage Hotel and Casino Tulsa Raceway Park hosted the Throw Down in T-Town drag races on Friday and Saturday. Track co-owner and operator Todd Martin said they received a letter from the Tulsa Mayor’s Office that gave the track permission to race last weekend.

“It was a big deal,” Martin said about receiving the letter. “We had some contingency plans, but the main thing is to get the spectators and them inside the facility, and they really, really did a good job complying. I was real happy with the way that they were complying with what we were asking them to do.”

Tulsa Raceway Park was able to open May 1 through Phase 1 because racetracks, like rodeos, are treated as an entertainment venue, such as a movie theater, rather than a sporting venue, by the state.

“Please note that racing is considered their business, not a special event permitted by the City of Tulsa,” the city of Tulsa’s Director of Communications Michelle Brooks said in an email.

Martin wouldn’t release an attendance number for the event but said there were 184 racing teams that competed. Martin did say, though, attendance was lower than usual because they had to reduce the number of people they could have at the venue. There is no attendance limit specified in Phase 1 for entertainment venues.

Martin also said they sanitized bleachers after each night and cleaned bathrooms every 30 minutes instead of every hour. Racers received their times digitally instead of on a time slip, tickets were only pre-sell, spectators sat every other row, and there were hand-washing stations throughout the facility.

Tulsa Raceway Park has an event scheduled for this weekend, as well.

“We’re going to continue following the governor’s plan for our type of facility,” Martin said. “We’ve added a couple extra precautions for racers and for spectators that we see that are needed in our type of industry. We’re going to continue on with that until that they tell us it’s different. I guess Friday the governor’s plan is to go into Phase 2, and we reviewed that. It’s not going to make a difference on our business, so we’re going to continue doing what we did this past weekend.”

Just said if businesses or organizations aren’t adhering to the state’s guidelines, the city of Tulsa can enforce those guidelines based on THD and city health nuisance laws.

“As we continue to move through all the phases, it’s crucial that people continue to follow social-distancing guidelines to avoid another surge to our hospital systems,” Just said. “Social distancing remains our best defense against COVID-19.”


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Gallery: Phase 2 of reopening Oklahoma began May 15; a look at the numbers

National
AP
Officials release edited coronavirus reopening guidance

NEW YORK — U.S. health officials on Thursday released some of their long-delayed guidance that schools, businesses and other organizations can use as states reopen from coronavirus shutdowns.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted six one-page “decision tool” documents that use traffic signs and other graphics to tell organizations what they should consider before reopening.

The tools are for schools, workplaces, camps, childcare centers, mass transit systems, and bars and restaurants. The CDC originally also authored a document for churches and other religious facilities, but that wasn’t posted Thursday. The agency declined to say why.

Early versions of the documents included detailed information for churches wanting to restart in-person services, with suggestions including maintaining distance between parishioners and limiting the size of gatherings. The faith-related guidance was taken out after the White House raised concerns about the recommended restrictions, according to government emails obtained by the AP and a person inside the agency who didn’t have permission to talk with reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity.

On Thursday, a Trump administration official also speaking on condition of anonymity said there were concerns about the propriety of the government making specific dictates to places of worship.

President Donald Trump has championed religious freedom as a way to connect with conservative evangelical voters and has shown eagerness for in-person religious services to restart. He consulted interfaith leaders last month for suggestions on how to reopen and said on a recent Fox News town hall that “we have to get our people back to churches, and we’re going to start doing it soon.”

The CDC drafted the reopening guidance more than a month ago and it was initially shelved by the administration, The Associated Press reported last week.

The agency also had prepared even more extensive guidance — about 57 pages of it — that has not been posted.

That longer document, which the AP obtained, would give different organizations specifics about how to reopen while still limiting spread of the virus, including by spacing workers or students 6 feet apart and closing break rooms and cafeterias to limit gatherings. Many of the suggestions already appear on federal websites but they haven’t been presented as reopening advice.

Some health experts and politicians have been pushing for the CDC to release as much guidance as possible.

“They want to be able to tell their own employees the guidance of the federal government,” Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, said at a congressional hearing Wednesday. “They want to be able to tell their customers, ‘We’ve done everything that’s been asked of us.’”

The guidance relates to another document released by the Trump administration on April 17. That phased-in reopening plan broadly outlines how to move away from stay-at-home orders, school closures and other measures designed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus that has caused more than 1.3 million reported U.S. illnesses and more than 80,000 deaths.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, on Wednesday offered a resolution — blocked by Republicans — to encourage release of all the documents.

“America needs and must have the candid guidance of our best scientists unfiltered, unedited, uncensored by president Trump or his political minions. The CDC report on reopening the country is an important piece of that guidance,” Schumer said.

The decision tools have been undergoing review by different federal officials, and they’ve been edited from earlier versions.

For example, an earlier draft of the one-page document on camps obtained by the AP asked organizers if their program would limit attendance to people who live nearby. If the answer was no, the camp was advised not to reopen. That local attendance limitation was dropped and was not in the version posted Thursday.

And in that document and others, language has been dropped that asked if the organization is in a community that is still requiring significant disease mitigation. If the answer was yes, the organization was advised not to reopen.

Many of the changes provide more wiggle room than what was in the initial versions.

For example, in the document for people who run child care centers, the older version obtained by the AP stated that CDC recommended “checking for signs and symptoms of children and staff.” The new guidelines add “as feasible” to the end.

Similar new language about feasibility appears in sections about promoting healthy hygiene such as hand washing and employees wearing cloth masks.


News
Watch Now: Gov. Stitt says state ready for Phase 2 reopening on Friday

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt said Thursday that the state is prepared for the second phase of reopening to start Friday in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stitt said the state continues to see a downward trend in the numbers of hospitalizations and positive tests for COVID-19.

“We are now 20 days into our measured approach to safely reopen our economy,” the governor said. “It is time to work together to create the healthiest environment and the strongest economy.”

Under Phase 2, organized sports activities can reopen under social distancing and sanitation protocols, according to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.

Bars can operate with diminished standing-room capacity where appropriate and under social distancing and sanitation protocols, according to the agency.

Public funerals and weddings can resume using social distancing protocols, and children’s nursery areas in places of worship can reopen.

Stitt said COVID-19 will continue to affect the country until a vaccine is developed.

But Oklahoma continues to have the eighth-fewest cases per capita among the states, he said.

“Our decisions are based on the data here in Oklahoma,” Stitt said. “This is why I instructed the Health Department (Oklahoma State Department of Health) to publish facts and ensure this information is communicated through multiple channels so Oklahomans can have a clear and unfiltered perspective.”

Oklahoma is testing more people per capita than California, Georgia and Florida, yet the state’s infection rate is significantly lower, Stitt said.

Oklahoma has more than 4,600 hospital beds available for COVID-19 patients, but only a fraction of them are in use, he said.

“As of last night, we have just 932 active cases in our state of nearly 4 million Oklahomans,” he said. “More than 3,500 people have already recovered from this virus.”

In the state’s two largest counties, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the population currently has COVID-19, Stitt said.

Since Oklahoma County has 212 active cases out of almost 800,000 people, that means 99.973% of the people in the county do not have COVID-19 at this time, Stitt said.

Tulsa County has 109 active cases out of 650,000 people, so 99.983% of the county’s residents currently do not have COVID-19, Stitt said.

“Our data shows we are in great shape to move to Phase 2,” the governor said.

Under Phase 2, the safer-at-home order continues to apply through the end of May for those 65 years old and older and those who have compromised immune systems, Stitt said.

“We should all continue to maintain social distancing while in public and take steps to protect ourselves and others from this virus,” he said.

If the data trends continue to hold, the state will be able to move to Phase 3 on June 1, he said.

Phase 3 includes unrestricted staffing and worksites, according to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.


Gallery: Phase 2 of reopening Oklahoma set to begin Friday; a look at the numbers

Gallery: Phase 2 of reopening Oklahoma began May 15; a look at the numbers

Local
Two-thirds of Tulsa County COVID-19 deaths are people over age 65

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s plan to reopen the state calls for vulnerable people — those over the age of 65 and those with serious underlying health conditions — to continue to follow Safer At Home guidelines through at least May 31.

That means vulnerable people should stay at home unless they work in a “critical infrastructure” business sector or to run essential errands such as for medications, groceries and medical appointments.

State and local leaders have been loosening restrictions on businesses and public meeting spaces since late April.

Still, local officials say that while there’s no specific guidance for those who live with or regularly interact with those considered especially vulnerable to COVID-19, safe practices used in any situation should prevail in these cases, too.

“All Tulsa County residents, including those who reside with individuals over the age of 65 or those with underlying health conditions, should remain vigilant in the prevention of COVID-19,” Tulsa Health Department spokeswoman Leanne Stephens said in an email.

“That includes frequent handwashing, cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, maintaining social distance when in public” and minimizing nonessential travel, she said.

“These steps will help protect residents, including our most vulnerable, from further spread of COVID-19,” she said.

The state of Oklahoma defines vulnerable individuals as those over the age of 65 and those with serious underlying medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease or diabetes.

Tulsa County’s experience with COVID-19 has been both similar and unique compared to other metro areas’.

All but two of the 36 people killed by COVID-19 in Tulsa County through Monday were 50 or older. The virus has killed 24 people age 65 and over, or two-thirds of the total COVID-19 deaths, in Tulsa County, according to Tulsa Health Department figures released Monday.

People between the age of 50 and 64 make up the next largest group of COVID-19 deaths, with 10, or about 28% of the total in this category.

One person each has died in the 18 to 35 years old category and the 36 to 49 years old category.

While some large metropolitan areas in the U.S. have reported disproportionate shares of minority deaths, that has not been the case here.

About eight in 10 of the people who have died from COVID-19 in Tulsa County and in the state were white. About 11% of the people who died from COVID-19 in Tulsa County and 8% in the state were black. Black people make up about 10% of the population in Tulsa County and 8% of the population in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Non-Hispanics make up about 97% of all deaths in Tulsa County, while the 36 deaths in the county through Monday were evenly split among males and females. Statewide, about 52% of the deaths were males.


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Gallery: Oklahoma Air National Guard flyover in Tulsa

Gallery: Oklahoma Air National Guard flyover in Tulsa