OKLAHOMA CITY — As calls continue for a statewide mask mandate, Oklahoma's top health official said Thursday it would be “very difficult” to implement across the state.
“We have such a diverse population,” said Dr. Lance Frye, the state’s interim commissioner of health. “We have very rural areas, and we have metro areas, so someone in a rural city doing the same activity in a metro region is far different.”
He said he agrees and thinks it’s appropriate to wear face masks to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“I think that’s a good thing for everyone to do to take personal responsibility and social responsibility, but to mandate it in such a diverse state is very difficult,” Frye said.
A growing number of states as well as cities across Oklahoma have implemented mandatory mask policies in recent days, including Oklahoma City, the state’s most populous metropolitan area.
But the issue of wearing masks is particularly divisive in state-run office complexes where some employees have chosen to mask up while others continue to refuse despite rising case numbers.
Oklahoma leaders said they are not uniformly requiring masks in state buildings — even in communities where local governments have mandated the practice in public.
Employees and visitors to the state Capitol building and the many state office complexes, for instance, are not required to comply with the Oklahoma City’s mask edict.
“I don’t think the mask mandate is enforced in state buildings,” Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said Thursday.
Frye said Thursday that the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metro areas are current hotspots for COVID-19 cases.
State Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, said the state Capitol may not be required to comply with a mask mandate. However, he said that doesn’t mean “we shouldn’t follow best practices that are happening across the country just because the building is exempt from the city’s requirement."
Bennett said the employees guarding the Capitol entrance aren’t wearing masks. He said there’s a lot of “fear and frustration” from workers who have been forced to return to work, but are encountering multiple unmasked employees and visitors.
“We know that the Capitol on multiple occasions had to lock down because of positive test results from people that are there,” he said. “The Capitol building itself is a political building, I understand that, but there are so many state government workers that have no choice to be there, but are risking exposure every time they go there.”
Tom Dunning, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said there’s been no consistent structure from state leaders. Thus, each agency has implemented mask rules differently.
He said his organization believes any state employee dealing directly with the public should wear a mask, and any visitor interacting with state employees should don one as well.
“We would have preferred to have had some sort of general guidance that all agencies could rely on, but what we’ve heard from our members is that’s pretty much left up to the agency on how to handle it,” Dunning said.
Still, Dunning said he understands why there’s been no coordination. Smaller, more isolated agencies may be able to socially distance better. Those wouldn’t necessarily need a mask requirement.
“I kind of get it because of the wide range of business that state agencies do,” he said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all fix.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.