Coronavirus Spread Continues In Oklahoma As Political Will For Mask Mandates Is Lacking

Voters wait in a long line at the Oklahoma County Election Board on Friday, October 30. (Seth Bodine / KOSU)

The pandemic is getting worse in Oklahoma, and science says mask wearing is one of the best ways to slow the spread of COVID-19. But with spotty mandates, mitigating the virus comes down to whether Oklahomans are willing to wear a mask voluntarily.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has been unwilling to issue a state-wide mask mandate, instead emphasizing personal responsibility and local control. His hesitance is understandable, at least politically.

In places like Norman, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, mask mandates brought intense backlash, even though data shows mandates work to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The vocal resistance among some residents meant most cities didn’t go for a mandate while other cities passed mandates but without strong enforcement. Additionally, unincorporated areas of the state have no means at all to enact a mask mandate on their own.

As a result, personal responsibility is the only thing standing in the way of uncontrolled community spread of COVID-19 in many parts of the state. So, are Oklahomans ‘taking things seriously’?

A new OU Poll of 575 Oklahomans found that 78 percent of respondents report wearing masks most or all of the time when social distancing is difficult.

Dr. Aaron Wendelboe, a professor of epidemiology at OU Health Sciences Center and former state epidemiologist, says that’s not enough.

“If we could really get it up, I would say at least another 10%, probably 15%, [would be] the best way to make a difference,” Wendelboe said. “And I am aware of other published studies that indicate that you need to exceed 90% and really maybe 95% to get really the maximum benefit.”

The poll found some differences among Oklahomans. Women are more likely than men to report wearing a mask, for example, and Democrats are more likely than Republicans. Black people are more likely than members of other racial groups to say they wear a mask.

“I looked at factors associated with mask wearing or not wearing in the literature. And, obviously one of the key factors — and it’s not just COVID related, but pre-COVID as well — and that’s that perceived risk, or on the flip side, the perceived benefit,” Wendelboe said.

Research suggests women are more likely than men to take just about any health risk seriously, from driving without a seatbelt to COVID-19. Ethnic minorities are more likely to be infected with and die from COVID-19, so it makes sense these groups are more likely to see masks as worth wearing.

“I would assume that the people who are not wearing it assume that there’s no benefit to themselves, but where a lot of the education needs to come in is the benefit for other people. And so the science is that wearing the mask protects other people more than the wearer,” Wendelboe said.

Getting someone to take personal responsibility is harder when they aren’t the one benefitting.

Dr. Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, says that’s an example of a long-standing divide in the two parties that could help explain why masking is higher among democrats.

“This reflects what we know about politics,” Gaddie said. “We know about having a collectivist versus an individualistic political ideology. Because having the collectivist ideology is going to make somebody more inclined to be engaged in collective action behavior that protects the group.”

In other words, prioritizing the community is already baked into a lot of the ideas Democrats believe in. On the other hand, Republicans tend to prioritize individual needs. That’s part of why there was so much resistance to mask mandates among Republicans in the first place — a mandate flies in the face of that individualistic ideology.

“So yeah, an implementation, a statewide policy enforced could have made a difference,” Gaddie said. “But even then I think compliance would have been tough. Look at the blowback in Norman, a pretty thoughtful city, over a masking ordinance. The Unite Norman movement doesn’t happen without the masking ordinance.”

With winter looming, experts warn the pandemic will get worse. In the absence of the political will for mask mandates, lives depend on whether Oklahomans are willing to take action to protect their neighbors on their own.

Oklahoma Engaged is an election project by NPR member stations in Oklahoma supported by the Inasmuch Foundation, the Kirkpatrick Foundation and Oklahoma Humanities.