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America’s public struggle with Covid-19, in some respects, started with a fateful moment in Oklahoma City. On March 11, 2020, the NBA’s Utah Jazz were in the Sooner State capital for a game against the Thunder.

Kevin Stitt, the Republican governor of Oklahoma, was at the game entertaining executives from a company they were trying to woo to expand its footprint in the state. League officials got a call that the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus, and suddenly, with the crowd in their seats, the game was canceled. Oklahoma City became the focal point for America’s initial reckoning with the virus. It was the moment Americans found out that everything would have to stop.

It fell to David Holt, a whip-smart technocratic Republican who seems out of step with the party’s current slash-and-burn mentality, to help rescue his city from the depths of disease. Holt, 42, is an Oklahoma City native who graduated from George Washington University. In college, he was the sports editor for The GW Hatchet, the student newspaper. After working in the Bush White House, he moved to Oklahoma. He did stints with Sen. Jim Inhofe and Gov. Mary Fallin before taking the job as chief of staff to Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City in 2006. Cornett and Holt were instrumental in helping bring the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder to the state. Holt went out on his own, and he was elected to the Oklahoma senate before winning the city’s mayorship by 65 percentage points in 2018. He’s one of the few big-city Republican mayors in America.

Here’s what makes OKC interesting: Oklahoma City was absolutely booming before the pandemic hit. Holt and the city government had to weather a pause in economic activity to rescue it and keep it thriving. Holt and his team implemented a series of unique strategies to help keep the city’s economy afloat -- and now they believe they are poised for continued greatness.


How Oklahoma City was affected by COVID-19

Shortly before Covid, the Oklahoma City metropolitan area had an unemployment rate of 2.5% — one of the lowest in the nation. In fact, Holt argues that the city had the strongest economy in America.

For nearly three decades, the secret to the city’s success has been the MAPS program. MAPS, which has passed multiple times since 1993, levied a one-cent sales tax to pay for large-scale urban renewal and public works projects. This time around, it’s projected to raise nearly $1 billion over eight years. Since its implementation in the early 1990s, the tax has helped fund a baseball stadium, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s arena, a convention center, school improvements and more. Holt’s MAPS program, which passed in 2019, will rebuild and renovate parks and build a multi-purpose stadium. The city is widely seen in urban circles as being innovative in convincing its residents to support a small increase in the sales tax to pay for improvements. And these projects paid for by MAPS have, undoubtedly, helped sustain Oklahoma City and transformed it into a regional power. Publicly funded projects begat private investment, and the city continued to improve.

“That was very bittersweet news to receive when the world had completely cratered .. [S]o we entered the pandemic, with authentically and arguably the strongest economy in the nation, we were literally number one in unemployment. But then we, you know, we just cratered like everybody else. I really felt there for a month or two, if you'd ask me what the rest of my mayoral tenure was gonna be like, I thought, well, I guess I'll be the mayor who presides over a lot of empty storefronts and a lot of empty office buildings, and it'll kind of feel like the Great Depression for the next 10 years. It turned out that wasn't the case.”
– David Holt, Mayor of Oklahoma City

And then came Covid. On March 15, Holt declared a state of emergency in Oklahoma City. Two days later, Holt closed all the bars and restaurants. He did so in the state capital where the governor, the Republican Stitt, was downplaying Covid. Stitt even took his children to a restaurant to show that it was safe. This is not how Holt handled the pandemic.

This all came at the worst time for Oklahoma’s largest city. Holt found out just weeks after the pandemic hit that his city had the lowest unemployment in America.

By The Numbers
Source: U.S. Census Bureau | U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis |
79.48 B
Gross Domestic Product¥
Resident Population
Median Household Income¥
Numbers indicate % change in attributes from April 2020 to April 2021.
As of 2019
As of 2020

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How Oklahoma City is handling COVID-19

Holt’s secret was being creative with what he was given. Like everywhere else in America, many businesses in the Oklahoma City area benefitted from the Paycheck Protection Program, which, essentially, paid businesses to not fire their workers. But Holt did more. He used the CARES Act to give grants to small businesses to help them stay afloat. Localities couldn’t use CARES Act money to plug revenue shortfalls, but officials had wide leeway to use the money otherwise.

The Small Business Continuity Program ended up dishing out anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000 in federally funded small-business grants to individual businesses. Eventually, the city gave out between $30 million and $40 million to help keep the businesses open.

“It was really rare and exciting to be able to take federal dollars, that were almost kind of a block grant, and just be creative with it and completely create that program from scratch. We didn't have time to see what other cities were doing or look for national models … Our chamber and our Alliance for Economic Development, and our city staff just worked together really fast to do that. So our recovery -- I'd say maybe it wasn't really a recovery at that stage, it was more triage, but we were able to maintain through the worst of it.”
– David Holt, Mayor of Oklahoma City

Holt credits that program and sensible masking and distancing policies for helping pull the city through the pandemic.

And now, the last three months have been historic for Oklahoma City: Their last three sales tax checks were $41 million, $47 million and $44 million. Forty-seven million was a record for the city.

Oklahoma City Unemployment Rate


The people who make Oklahoma City work

head of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department

Dr. Patrick McGough

head of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department

Dr. Patrick McGough

McGough is Oklahoma City’s Anthony Fauci, and was instrumental in helping direct the medical response of OKC.

President and CEO of the Alliance for Economic Development

Cathy O'Connor

President and CEO of the Alliance for Economic Development

Cathy O'Connor

O’Connor is a three-decade veteran of the Oklahoma City government and runs the agency that helps make the city attractive to businesses. Through Covid, she worked with Holt to ensure businesses had what they needed to survive, utilizing funds from the CARES Act.

Oklahoma City manager

Craig Freeman

Oklahoma City manager

Craig Freeman

Freeman is essentially the chief operating officer of Oklahoma City.

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What Was Oklahoma City Searching For?

The pulse of the city of Oklahoma City can been seen through the search results of the last year. In April 2020, unemployment surpassed healthcare and continues to be the top political issue search term in Oklahoma City.

Political Issues

Top Searched Political Issues, 2021 in Oklahoma City

Source: Google Trends


What's next for Oklahoma City post COVID-19?

Holt refers to Covid as a “pause on our progress” in Oklahoma City. “We seem to be picking up, in many ways, where we left off in February of 2020,” Holt said. Oklahoma City is America’s 25th largest now. Waiting on the other side of this pandemic is Holt’s nearly $1 billion MAPS program. A $300 million convention center with an attached Omni Hotel has just opened. There’s a new 70-acre park. A $175 million First American Museum celebrating Native American culture is slated to open in the coming months. A $200 million renovation of the art deco First National Center skyscraper is scheduled to wrap up this year.

“It doesn't feel like we're digging out of wreckage, it feels like we're just kind of able to kind of pick up right where we left off … And where we left off was: a city that had the lowest unemployment in the country had just passed a billion-dollar infrastructure package and had a lot of momentum behind it.”
– David Holt, Mayor of Oklahoma City
Oklahoma City
Basketball Game

From The Mayor's Office

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When the pandemic hit, Bedré had to close their retail store and focus on digital advertising. They ran Google Ads campaigns with offers normally reserved for the holiday season, and these efforts helped offset the retail store’s slowdown: Bedré saw a 65% increase in online sales and a record number of new wholesale accounts. “Google’s digital tools are really valuable—they help us make better decisions, and they’re how we build our brand and connect with our customers,” says Kay Colbert, General Manager of Bedré.

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