Staying Open

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      Staying Open

      About two years since the first Covid cases were recognized, there is finally enough space for some hindsight to judge various strategies used to try to shut down the pandemic. Some states like New York imposed strict mask mandates, travel restrictions, shutdowns, and vaccine passport requirements while other states largely remained open, and drew a lot of criticism for it. Lisa Fletcher reports you might be surprised at how things turned out in Oklahoma.

      When Covid first arrived in Oklahoma at the beginning of March 2020,

      the reaction of state and local officials followed a familiar pattern. Big sporting events cancelled, non-essential businesses closed, gatherings of more than 10 banned.

      But while cities and states on the east and west coasts entered what would become long lockdowns, Oklahoma’s Republican Governor Kevin Stitt decided early on to take a different path.

      Governor Kevin Stitt: I think as a leader, you can't be swayed with public opinion.// it's very easy to get swayed by what we're seeing on television, and what's happening maybe in New York or California, but that's why I was telling my team the whole time, "Let's keep focused on Oklahoma.”

      So in April 2020, just weeks after the shutdown began, and with cases spiking around the country, the governor was back to announce the reopening.

      (April 22, 2020) Stitt: We are here today to explain how and when we will get Oklahoma back open.

      Lisa: You reopened the state of Oklahoma, not without some harsh criticism.

      Stitt: We wanted to protect the health and lives of Oklahomans. But part of that is also protecting the health and lives of our businesses, the economy is not a light switch. You can't just flip this on and off." And so I thought it was very important to signal that we're not going to pick winners and losers and say this is an essential business, and this is not essential business. Everything is an essential business if it's your business and it's something that you've poured your blood, sweat, and tears and your capital into doing it.

      Stitt was accused of putting profits ahead of people, risking the well-being of Oklahomans to keep businesses open.

      In March 2020, he posted a photo of himself and his family, unmasked, in a crowded restaurant.

      On June 1st 2020, he fully reopened the state’s economy, and remained undeterred the next month, when he became the first governor to be diagnosed with Covid.

      Lisa: And you've said many times, you strove to balance the health of Oklahomans with the Oklahoma economy, but is there a number? I mean, what's the right balance between the number of deaths from the pandemic and the health of the economy?

      Stitt: Obviously, one death is too many. And if I could wave a magic wand and make COVID disappear from my state, I would have done it in the very beginning and would have done anything I could. Unfortunately, this is a virus. This is something that I knew was going to kind of run its course. And that's why our data in our state, we'll put it up against anybody.

      Based on figures from the Oklahoma Department of Health and the CDC, the state spent much of 2020 with a case rate just below the national average. While for last year, 2021, it was slightly above the average.

      But when it comes to the economy, Oklahoma is in a strong position, having kept unemployment lower than the national average through most of 2020, and ending the year with money in the bank

      Lisa: How did you get a budget surplus out of 2020?

      Stitt: Because we never shut down. We've been fiscally responsible. I've held the growth of government down. I believe we need more taxpayers, not more taxes in the state of Oklahoma.

      Lisa: There are always hidden costs to everything. And as economists start to peel back the layers on 2020, surely they're going to find things we're not thinking about. What do you think some of the hidden costs are to the pandemic that maybe the average person hasn't thought of at this point, or has had to encounter?

      Stitt: Well, I told this to President Trump and also President Biden that the continued bailouts are going to be problematic for our national debt, for inflation. We didn't need any more bailouts. I believe that I represent Oklahomans very well. We believe in more freedoms. We believe that they didn't want the government coming in and telling them that you had to stay at home during this pandemic. And so, as their governor, I agreed with them and we weren't going to make them do that like we saw in other states. My kids were in school the whole time. Oklahoma for the most part was in school the entire time. Had a couple of school districts that weren't. And I believe our kids now are ahead of the kids in California, or New York, or some of these other states that decided to take a year off.

      Lisa: You've talked about a lot of things that you think worked out well based on the decisions you made. But if you had a measure of success, looking back, what would that measure be?

      Stitt: I would say my success is that I've trusted the Oklahoma people and I trusted their personal responsibility. I don't have all the answers. Government doesn't have all the answers. That's why we believe in personal freedoms. And I wanted to be transparent with Oklahomans. I trust Oklahomans to make the right decision. That's what I'm most proud of.

      Sharyl (on-camera): Wasn't the governor one of the first ones that challenged the vaccine requirement for the state guard?

      Lisa (on-camera): He was. In fact, he was one of the first state leaders to do that. It ended up in court. He lost the first round. That is an ongoing battle. And then recently, Governor Stitt announced he's not going to get a booster shot despite the CDC recommending it.

      Sharyl (on-camera): Now, another story that you've been covering for us has to do with the rising cost of beef and how the American ranchers were saying that they weren't seeing any of those increased profits.

      Lisa (on-camera): Right. We looked at the plight of Oklahoma beef farmers, who like many around the country are struggling. Even as consumers are facing those skyrocketing meat prices. Farmer groups have accused the four big meat processing companies, two of which are Brazilian-owned, of having too much control of wholesale and resale prices at the expense of ranchers and consumers. And as one told us, when we were in Oklahoma.

      Lisa: What are family farmers up against right now?

      Fred Stokes: Extinction probably.

      Lisa: Who's getting all the money?

      Stokes: Right now, the beef packer. They're totally ripping people off.

      Lisa (on-camera): In the last few days, the Biden administration announced a billion dollars in funding to independent meat processors and farmers. And one of the things they're promising to do is to strengthen that “Produced in the USA” label, because one of the things the multinational companies have been doing is raising the cattle and slaughtering it abroad, bringing it to the U.S., simply packaging it here, and then slapping the “Made in the USA” label on it.