OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahomans hoping to see the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University football teams hit the gridiron this fall should start wearing face masks, the governor said this week.

Gov. Kevin Stitt said he won’t mandate face coverings, but is “strongly encouraging” Oklahomans to follow federal health guidelines and don masks in public where social distancing isn’t possible to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Research shows that wearing a mask when you can’t social distance significantly lowers the transmission rate of COVID-19,” the Republican governor said. “It may take some getting used to, but it’s a small price to be able to keep our businesses open, our economy running and to be able to watch OU and OSU stick it to the Shorthorns on the football field in the fall.”

Stitt, who wore a face covering for the first time at a press conference, said Oklahomans must all play a part in slowing the spread of the deadly virus, particularly over the holiday weekend.

Stitt’s remarks came as the state’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to increase. On Thursday, state health officials reported 427 new cases, bringing the state’s total to 14,539. There were 368 hospitalizations and 395 total deaths.

Dr. Lance Frye, the state’s interim health commissioner, said since June roughly 40% of the state’s COVID-19 cases have been in Oklahomans under 35.

The state faces a critical situation heading into the July 4 holiday as increasing numbers of young Oklahomans have the virus, but are largely asymptomatic, he said.

Younger Oklahomans, who want to interact with loved ones who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, should be “very careful,” he said.

“As we celebrate our nation’s freedoms, we ask you to please wear a mask,” Frye said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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