Recently Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order that repealed the statewide restrictions that were imposed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to some confusion among my friends, family, and students about what this means about various restrictions on gathering and mask wearing that we have all become accustomed to over this past year.
This column is not designed to take a stance on Stitt’s policy itself. I am a political scientist and not an epidemiologist. If you want the science on mask-wearing, I would encourage you to follow the advice of medical professionals in the CDC, the Oklahoma Department of Health and the advice of the Oklahoma State Medical Association. Instead, I wanted to write about what Gov. Stitt’s order means for you on a high-profile impact of COVID-19 mask wearing.
Does Gov. Stitt’s executive order mean that you do not have to wear a mask? No. Gov. Stitt’s executive order did not repeal any statewide mask mandate because Oklahoma never issued a statewide mask mandate. If Oklahoma had done so last spring, then the governor’s executive order would have far-reaching implications. But because the State of Oklahoma left that up to the various city and county governments, it means that Gov. Stitt’s announcement changed very little real policy. Unless you are in a state building, it does not affect you at all. You are still required to follow the instructions of your city government. Lawton is a great example of this. The City Council of Lawton passed a mask ordinance last year. That ordinance has not been repealed as of this writing (though the Council is meeting today (3/23) so that could change).
Let us say that Lawton does decide to repeal the mask mandate within city limits. Does that mean that you must no longer wear a mask when you go to buy groceries? Possibly, but maybe not. The other thing to remember is that businesses could require you to wear a mask within their own building if they chose. Many businesses, including Walmart, instituted such a policy prior to Lawton instituting one citywide. Before you get too upset about your personal freedom to refuse to wear a mask, remember that the business owner has the freedom to say, within reason, what goes on in their store. If they can say “No shirt, no shoes, no service” they can apply that to mask-wearing as well.
A restaurant may choose to continue maintaining social distancing in their dining room because of a company policy. There is nothing illegal about that and it does not violate Gov. Stitt’s order. This also includes your local church. A congregation, or denomination, can set expectations for their members in worship.
It is easy to get confused. The concept of federalism; the division of power between the federal, state, and local governments, makes it difficult to know exactly where any one policy change comes from. Additionally, we give business owners, both locally and nationally, a lot of freedom to determine how they want to run their individual businesses. All this together means that it can be quite difficult for the average voter to know exactly what the rules are at any one time. That leads to frustration and anger.
My advice to you would be to hang onto those masks that you have accrued over this past year for awhile longer. As states, counties, and businesses make these decisions you are going to see variance depending on where you live and where you shop. If that sounds too complicated, then your problem is with James Madison and George Washington and not the employee who kindly informed you that masks were store policy.
David Searcy has degrees in political s cience and lives in Lawton.