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Oklahoma Strong: How 4 Oklahomans are Rising Up and Responding to the Face of the Pandemic

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Posted at 12:09 AM, Apr 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-09 15:21:02-04

A statewide shut down may save lives, but how will this impact our cities, rural communities, suburbs, and small towns economically?

2 Works for You asked four Oklahomans to share their thoughts on how they feel a statewide shut down would impact our lives.

Laura Bellis is a 31-year-old who works for local, non-profit healthcare. Bellis has resided in Tulsa for the past ten years.

In early February, Bellis began to hear about the virus spreading in other countries and other states. This news got her thinking about what the pandemic would look like once it hit Oklahoma.

"Other states were proactively acknowledging that the coronavirus doesn’t just affect the elderly. This affects everyone. This is very serious. Everyone is vulnerable. Even if you are young and healthy, you can get very sick from this. This does impact everyone," says Bellis. "The community should be aware that if people are out, even if they feel healthy, they should know that this virus has an incubation period or you may have no symptoms, but there is still the potential that you could be spreading it to others you come in contact with. People in the state did not have access to a lot of resources before this all happened. Watching as this pandemic took off and knowing how under-resourced this healthcare is, and being able to predict how this would affect so many people I know, I love, I work with and have spent time serving, it was devastating," said Bellis.

On March 23, 2020, Governor Stitt issued a partial statewide Shelter in Place for Oklahoma residents 65 and older, as well as individuals with conditions that could be potentially deadly if they contracted COVID-19.

“I can understand that [the Governor] is in a spot where he is having to make tough decisions,” said Bellis.

Bellis believes a full statewide shut down is necessary to eradicate the spread of the coronavirus ultimately.

On the day Governor Stitt issued a proclamation for a partial statewide Shelter in Place, Bellis was compelled to co-found a Facebook group called, Save Our State: Calling on Governor Stitt to Act NOW, with her friend Nate Morris.

Morris also works in non-profit healthcare. He is 30 and has lived in Tulsa for over eight years.

Initially, Bellis thought she would be able to attract a few hundred people to the group, and they could write letters to the state office to push for a statewide Shelter in Place.

“We did not, by any means, expect for the group to grow as rapidly in the way it did. In less than two weeks, we have grown to a group of more than 50,000 people,” said Morris.

The Facebook group has drawn Oklahomans, from different backgrounds, across the state. Bellis described the group as diverse, representing Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and Libertarians.

Aside from getting a mandated Shelter in Place for the state, which is the group’s primary goal, Bellis believes that the state government’s priorities should also be focused on the medical workers.

“On March 6, 2020, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, 9.3% of COVID-19 cases are our healthcare providers right now. We should be thinking about how we can ensure that we are keeping our healthcare providers safe,” Bellis said.

Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Edmond are the only Oklahoma cities that have implemented a Shelter in Place to date.

On April 2, 2020, The Today Show interviewed Mayor G.T. Bynum on the New Yorker article called, ‘I’m a Red-State Mayor and I Ordered My City to Stay Home’. During the interview, Craig Melvin asked the Tulsa Mayor if the Governor had made a mistake by only issuing a partial order.

Mayor Bynum said, “We’re doing the best that we can in Tulsa. The needs that we have in Tulsa, I think, are very different than the majority of our state, or a lot of our state, which is very rural. Tulsa and Oklahoma City, at this point, have passed Shelter in Place orders, because of the density of people we have. I certainly hope we can get to the point where the whole state does this, but the Governor has to make the decisions he can with information that is available to him, and I have to do the same as a Mayor.”

Bellis agrees with the Shelter at Home issued in Tulsa. However, she points out that healthcare across the state is more interrelated than we may think.

“So many rural hospitals have closed in the past several years. Where do they go for care? [To] our urban centers. Medical facilities have to gear up and be ready for people to come in from our rural communities that need care, and that is going to be part of overwhelming our urban hospital systems. And of course, people need to and should come in for care. Where else are they supposed to go? But, it shows that our communities are more interconnected. We’re all part of Oklahoma. These things are much more interwoven,” said Bellis.

Jim Dodd is from the small rural town of Laverne, Okla. Dodd says he understands why many Oklahomans would want a statewide shutdown. But, he believes the shutdown could potentially have a devastating impact on small communities.

“We are torn between shutting a town in a broken state down to save our lives. If we do, most of us will lose our jobs, houses, and livelihoods. That’s a hard pill to swallow. I do believe that Oklahoma is just the rural town of America. We are a poor state. I am sure [our Governor] is just looking at the numbers and wondering if Oklahoma would go bankrupt if we shut down," said Dodd.

If a statewide shut down is put into place, Dodd believes the smaller towns won’t recover.

“They won’t be able to open [small communities] back up. Rural America has been dying off, now add this virus. There is no hope for ‘No Man’s Land’. We are doomed either way. We might live through the pandemic, but [it] will slowly kill the state off. A statewide shutdown is a hard decision to make,” said Dodd.

Dodd does have more hope for Oklahoma suburbs.

“The suburbs will survive. Someone will come along and buy the recently closed business and open it back up and thrive,” Dodd said.

Aaron Foster and his wife of nine years are both the proud parents of four children, two of which they are fostering. Foster and his family have lived in Owasso for six years. Born and raised in Oklahoma, Foster says he even ran for State House two years ago.

Like so many families in Oklahoma, Foster’s family has been tremendously impacted by the current pandemic.

“My foster kids can't see their parents or siblings. My kids are not getting the education they need. My wife is trying to work from home with kids running around. We are a family that goes out in the world, and we are social. Now we are stuck at home, and my kids don't understand why,” Foster said.

Foster has owned a wedding venue for four years.

“I can't speak for everyone, but our business has been hit hard. I sell dates for a living, and the government is forcing me to close,” Foster said.

Foster says he is beyond frustrated with the recent state shut down of non-essential businesses.

“The local economy will recover but only if the state lifts restrictions on or before the end of the month. If it goes beyond that, we will have a major issue. Small businesses are getting small grants or loans to survive. That's money I have to pay back with interest. This is a violation of the 1st and 14th Amendment. They are telling us not to go to church [and] making us stay in groups of 10 or less. We can't congregate. Plain and simple, stop this shut down of everything, and let people go back to work. People need to make money to spend money. Stop living in fear. A lot of small business owners are going to go out of business if this continues," said Bellis.

Foster said he has no choice but to ride this out.

In the meantime, the COVID-19 cases are continuing to rise in Oklahoma.

The OSDH regularly updates the numbers of COVID-19 cases and related deaths from each county and posts the list on their website.

According to the OSDH, as of April 7, 2020, there are currently 630 reported COVID-19 cases, and 34 reported COVID-19 related deaths in the 18 counties that make up Green Country.

How accurate are these COVID-19 numbers?

“We know that due to the previously limited testing availability, there are likely far more individuals infected than the number of individuals who have tested positive so far. As testing capabilities increase, that number will paint a more accurate picture," said officials with OSDH," said Leanne Stephens at the Tulsa Health Department.

On April 7, 2020, the OSDH reported the state now has 30,227 coronavirus testing supplies available, allowing more individuals to be tested and providing officials the ability to collect more accurate data on COVID-19.

Although prevention for the virus will most likely be accessible in the future, there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.

As for Nate Morris, he believes that a statewide Shelter in Place is the only option in keeping Oklahoma citizens safe.

“People are dying. People are suffering. Every bit of data and every global outcome shows us that we will not be able to contain the spread of the virus without an immediate shelter in place mandate. We believe that Governor Stitt wants to protect Oklahomans,” Morris said.

“Are we at a point of no return? Not necessarily. Are we at a point when we’re acting much later than what had been best? Have we had deaths and illnesses that were preventable? Yes. That being said, it is never too late for [our Governor] to still do something, because every intervention will help flatten that curb. And from what we’ve also seen, from what’s happened with other communities and countries, if you look at their trend lines, you see, when intervention hits, the curb starts to flatten," said Bellis.

Will there be a statewide lockdown, and if so, what will the ramifications be economically? Only time will tell.

Oklahomans, clearly have different convictions on what decisions should be made moving us forward beyond the pandemic.

Will this chapter of uncertainty divide us as a state? Morris doesn’t believe it will.

Morris says, “We are Oklahomans. In times of trial; through tornadoes and terror attacks and everything in between, we come together and support one another without question. That's who we are. That's the Oklahoma Standard. ”

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