“My response to those folks, the naysayers, is: When is the right time?" Stitt said to critics of the rally. “The coronavirus is in the United States, it’s in Oklahoma, we have to take precautions. But we have the freedoms to stay at home, you have the freedoms to come to this rally.”
Stitt also echoed Trump’s messaging that wearing masks to the rally was optional.
“If you want to wear a mask, we want you to do it,” Stitt said. “If you feel safer at home, we don’t want you to come to that rally. But if you do feel okay, we want you to come to the rally and have a good time.”
Though the Tulsa rally went forward, Trump this month canceled another planned for New Hampshire as coronavirus cases across the country continued to spike. The White House maintained the cancellation was due to weather events, even though the state didn’t appear to be in much danger.
There is no indication that Stitt actually contracted the virus at the rally, which was held June 20. But his attitude toward it characterized the governor’s posture toward the coronavirus.
Back in March, Stitt also made controversial comments about the virus. He tweeted a picture of him and his children in a crowded restaurant and commented, “It’s packed tonight!”
He soon deleted the tweet, but rather than be chastened by the backlash, his office doubled down. A spokesman said Stitt would keep dining out and wanted Oklahomans to keep doing it too, and encouraged people not to be “living in fear.”
“The governor will continue to take his family out to dinner and to the grocery store without living in fear and encourages Oklahomans to do the same,” his office said.
The day after the controversy, Stitt relented to calls to declare a state of emergency in Oklahoma.
Several days earlier, after the state had experienced its third coronavirus case, Stitt had discouraged schools from shutting down.
“We do not want to create a panic or overreact,” he said, adding: “We want to stress that, at this time, it is important we remain calm, and be judicious in decisions to close schools and businesses. It is the state’s recommendation that schools remain open."
Shortly after he issued the state of emergency, Stitt issued successive “safer-at-home” orders designed to discourage large public gatherings. The governor maintained that there was little difference between his orders and other states’ “stay-at-home” orders. But in fact, his order mandated only that people over 65 and those with “serious underlying medical conditions” had to stay home.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep Oklahomans safe, and we’re making the right decisions at the right time,” he said, arguing that stricter stay-at-home orders were “impractical.”
At the time, Oklahoma was one of just eight states — all of them with GOP governors and also in the middle of the country — who resisted the stricter stay-at-home or “shelter-in-place” orders.
Oklahoma for weeks continued to rank toward the bottom in coronavirus cases among the 50 states, but it has seen a surge in the Tulsa area after the Trump rally. A top local health official said the rally “more than likely” contributed to the increase.
At the time of the rally, its statewide seven-day average of daily cases was around 300; today it’s doubled to more than 600. Other states have seen such increases — particularly in the South and Southwest — but over the past week Oklahoma has seen the ninth-highest increase in per capita cases.
Another high-profile attendee who declined to wear a mask was former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, who has also tested positive for the coronavirus. Cain, who required hospitalization, later praised South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) for not requiring masks during Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore.
“Masks will not be mandatory for the event, which will be attended by President Trump,” Cain tweeted. “PEOPLE ARE FED UP!”
Two weeks ago, Stitt for the first time bowed to pressure from health officials and publicly encouraged masks, donning one while saying, “It’s that easy.” Last week, he also he rebuked people who were “mask shamers.” But he has also resisted what more than 20 other governors have done: requiring masks. Even as his diagnosis was announced Wednesday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey became the latest GOP governor to relent to such pressure.