Oklahoma Governor Tests Positive for Coronavirus

Gov. Kevin Stitt said he was “pretty shocked” to become the first governor known to have contracted the virus. Oklahoma has averaged more than 640 new cases per day over the past week.

Gov. Kevin Stitt was recognized as President Donald Trump spoke during a campaign rally at the BOK Center on June 20th in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Credit...Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma announced on Wednesday that he tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first governor in the United States known to have been infected during the pandemic.

Mr. Stitt told reporters in a video news conference that he was feeling fine and that he did not know where, when or how he had become infected.

Mr. Stitt, a Republican, said that his own infection had not prompted him to second-guess his response to the virus, which has been less aggressive than in many other states, including some led by fellow Republicans. The governor has resisted issuing a statewide mask order, and continued to do so on Wednesday. He faced criticism early on in the outbreak, in March, when he posted a photo of himself with his children inside a crowded restaurant at a time when many people in the state were following social distancing protocols.

“I’m probably getting tons of texts right now from other governors around the country,” he said. “I was pretty shocked that I was the first governor to get it.”

Oklahoma has averaged more than 640 new cases per day over the past week, more than at any point in the pandemic. On the same day the governor announced that he had tested positive, the state reported 1,075 new coronavirus cases, surpassing the single-day record set on Tuesday. The county that includes Oklahoma City, the state capital, has seen some of the swiftest growth, with more than 200 daily cases on average, more than double the rate of two weeks ago.

The positive test for Mr. Stitt represents a new frontier for America’s governors, who have been at the forefront of responding to the crisis but have so far largely avoided personally confronting the virus.

In late March, Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota quarantined himself after coming in contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, but the governor did not develop symptoms. Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois isolated at home in May after a senior staff member tested positive, and the governor later tested negative after attending anti-racism protests and coming into contact with someone who was infected. Gov. Steve Sisolak of Nevada at one point also tested negative.

A number of politicians and prominent figures have had the virus, from the lieutenant governor in Mississippi to members of President Trump’s campaign staff. At least three senators, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, have said they tested positive for the virus or antibodies.

Mr. Stitt, 47, said he did not think that he had a serious case.

“It just kind of feels achy, like maybe the start of a little cold is what it feels like right now, but really I feel fine,” Mr. Stitt said during the Zoom call while sitting at home.

He said that he received his test results at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, and that given the timing, he did not believe his infection was linked to President Trump’s rally in Tulsa on June 20. Mr. Stitt was one of thousands who attended the rally, where many officials and Mr. Trump’s supporters decided not to wear masks. A surge in coronavirus cases in and around Tulsa was most likely tied to the rally, the city’s top health official said last week.

“I don’t think there was any way it was at the president’s rally,” Mr. Stitt said Wednesday.

Mr. Stitt has not been shy about not wearing a mask, at public events, meetings and at Mr. Trump’s rally. But he said he could have been exposed anywhere at any time.

“You just never know where it is,” he said, adding, “I gassed up at a gas station and we could have touched the gas pump. You start second-guessing and wondering all those different things and how you could have gotten it.” The virus spreads mainly from person to person, rather than via contaminated surfaces, according to public health experts.

Mr. Stitt’s announcement set off a flurry of testing and self-isolating among state and local officials who had been in close contact with him or had recent meetings with him. The governor’s busy, in-person schedule in recent days will complicate contact tracing efforts. The governor said that in talking to health officials, he was likely not contagious before Saturday and that he did not have “the traditional symptoms” of Covid-19.

On Tuesday morning, hours before he received his test results, Mr. Stitt attended a special meeting of the state’s Land Office in a conference room at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. He did not wear a mask.

Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, who serves in the governor’s cabinet as secretary of tourism and branding and who sat unmasked at a conference table across from Mr. Stitt at the Land Office meeting, said in a Facebook post that he was going to be tested after learning the news and was self-isolating at home.

“No one in Oklahoma can say they don’t know anyone who has had it,” Mr. Pinnell wrote on Facebook. “We all know someone now and it should absolutely be taken seriously.”

Mr. Stitt said he was tested for the virus on Tuesday but it was unclear what time. Asked why he had not worn a mask at the morning Land Office meeting, Mr. Stitt said he has since notified the two people he sat closest to, Mr. Pinnell and Blayne Arthur, the state agriculture secretary, that he had tested positive for the virus.

“Those two were probably six feet away from me,” Mr. Stitt said.

Photographs of the meeting show Mr. Stitt sitting at the head of a conference table, with the lieutenant governor leaning in to his immediate left and the agriculture secretary to his right. Mr. Stitt appears to be sitting closer than six feet to them. Paul Monies, a reporter for Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit online news outlet, covered the meeting, and said it looked to him as if the governor at times could have been closer than six feet.

Mr. Monies tested positive for the virus after covering the president’s rally in Tulsa, and had recently returned to work. He said that although he was wearing a mask at the meeting, he is now considering getting tested again.

“It was my first in-person meeting back from quarantine,” Mr. Monies said.

Oklahoma was among the first states to reopen its economy, with stores, barbershops and salons opening back up on April 24. At the time, the state had just 3,100 cases. New infections were holding steady — with an average of 94 new cases a day — but not on a sustained decrease, the path that is recommended by public health experts before reopening.

Restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and houses of worship were allowed to reopen shortly afterward, on May 1. Bars — a known source of new infections across the country — reopened on May 15.

By early June, there were signs of worrisome spread. On June 12, Oklahoma surpassed more than 200 new confirmed daily cases for the first time. A little more than a month later, the state has recorded more than 21,000 cases, and the positive test rate is about 8.5 percent, among the highest in months.

Mr. Stitt has been slow to embrace measures recommended by public health experts, such as issuing stay-at-home orders and mandating face coverings in public. While he shut down businesses in the state this spring, he is among a handful of governors who never issued formal orders for residents to stay at home during the pandemic, and he only recently encouraged Oklahomans to wear masks.

He briefly wore a face covering at a news conference on June 30, the first time he had appeared at a news briefing wearing a mask since the pandemic began, The Oklahoman reported. “It’s this easy,” he was quoted as saying.

On Wednesday, the governor said he had no plans to roll back the state’s reopening or to mandate the use of masks, which he said are matters of personal responsibility and not within the purview of government. “You can’t pick and choose what freedoms you are going to give people,” Mr. Stitt said. “This is something that could be with us for the next 24 months. I don’t think Americans, Oklahomans particularly, want to bunker in place for the next 24 months.”

Mr. Stitt said he did not have a fever, was self-isolating away from his family and would be working from home. His wife, Sarah, and their six children have tested negative.

A member of the Cherokee Nation, Mr. Stitt is the first tribal citizen to become governor of Oklahoma since the 1950s.

Manny Fernandez reported from Houston, and Sarah Mervosh from New York. Ben Fenwick contributed reporting from Tulsa, Okla., and Mitch Smith from Chicago.