OKLAHOMA CITY — The growing partisan divide over facemasks was on full display in the Legislature last week.
On one side of the chamber, Democrats stood out — their mouths and noses covered by a wide variety of masks meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In stark contrast, many of their Republican counterparts chose to adopt the Legislature’s pre-pandemic style — no face coverings.
Some observers say the decision to wear facemasks is shaping into a partisan issue. GOP and Democratic leaders are starkly divided over whether personal freedoms and comfort should trump medical experts’ recommendations on how to slow the progression of the deadly virus.
One week ago, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said wearing facemasks in public should be a “personal preference.”
Stitt, who wasn’t wearing a facemask when he made the remarks, said he’d be very cautious about mandating things like masks in public.
He acknowledged the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges wearing a mask if social distancing is impossible to maintain, but said Oklahomans don't have to wear one if they can maintain their distance.
“To me, that's a personal preference," he said. "If you feel safer in a mask, then we definitely encourage you to do that. If you can remain social distanced, we don’t think you necessarily need to have a mask, but that’s a personal preference.”
He said Oklahomans are doing a good job social distancing and taking care of their neighbors.
The CDC recommends using cloth face coverings in public when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain — like at grocery stores and pharmacies.
The federal agency said a significant number of individuals with COVID-19 lack symptoms or could be contagious even before exhibiting signs of illness.
As of Wednesday, 6,229 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Oklahoma, up 92 from the day before. In all, 322 Oklahomans have died and 156 remain hospitalized.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said it’s unfortunate that Stitt has never worn masks in public.
She said Oklahomans look to Stitt and President Donald Trump for guidance. If neither Republican dons protective headgear in public, it de-emphasizes the importance of the practice.
Trump has also largely bucked the federal mask recommendation in recent weeks, she said.
“I think that with the president not wearing one, and the governor not wearing one, it has somehow become this partisan issue,” she said. “I don’t wear a mask because I’m a Democrat. I wear a mask because I want to protect others. I hate that it’s become a partisan issue.”
She said she doesn’t feel out of place wearing a mask in Norman, but she’s noticed a lot people have chosen not to don them.
A recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that Democrats were more likely than Republicans to report wearing masks. About 76 percent of Democrats said they wore a mask compared with 59 percent of Republicans, the AP reported.
The poll found people with college degrees were more likely to wear masks. Nearly 83 percent of African Americans reported wearing them compared to 67 percent of Hispanics and 64 percent of whites, the AP reported.
In Stillwater, a mask mandate was quickly rescinded earlier this month. After business employees reported being threatened by customers who didn’t think the government should force them to wear the coverings, city leaders quickly made masks optional.
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said her facemask prevented anyone from seeing her grin when asked why she and four caucus members chose to wear masks to a press briefing.
Floyd said her caucus decided to follow the recommendations from health care experts.
“We wear a mask not to protect ourselves, but to protect others around us,” she said. “I can’t speak to why some people choose not to do that. But we choose to follow the experts and the medical recommendations and advice that we get.”
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said he’s worn a mask at times, but — like Stitt — believes the issue ultimately boils down to a personal preference.
“I understand in the urban areas people are much more closer,” he said. “I live in Atoka, Oklahoma., and we are blessed with having some open spaces.”
McCall, who is CEO of AmeriState Bank in Atoka, said his business has taken steps to keep employees and customers safe.
“I think going forward on this COVID situation, we need to be cognizant of practicing health safety and just being smart,” he said. “I think that could help in more positive outcomes going forward.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.