Jackson Town Council wants people to mask up. It unanimously passed a resolution Monday supporting the use of face masks to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
“Wearing a mask is not a political statement,” Mayor Pete Muldoon said. “It is a sign of kindness, it is a sign that we care about our community members, our visitors, our families, and our friends. If that has become political it is not our politics that are broken, it is us.”
The resolution lacks legal teeth, rather it is meant to signal the council’s support for a countywide, enforceable health order. District health officer Dr. Travis Riddell is drafting such a mandate, one that many citizens have “pleaded for,” said Councilman Jim Stanford.
Some, however, have decried a mask measure, calling it a violation of their civil liberties. Stanford, for his part, said that is “nonsense.” He drew back the pages of history, invoking the sacrifices people have made in the past for the betterment of society that far eclipse wearing a mask.
“During World War II, did people reject the rationing that was going on and say, ‘No, you know what, it’s against my civil liberties, I’m entitled to a whole side of beef,’ or whatever was needed for the greater good? We’re not asking people to make much of a sacrifice here. It’s a simple gesture for the benefit of your fellow human being.”
The notion of donning mouth coverings in Jackson Hole has become “quite politically charged,” Riddell said during a Teton District Board of Health meeting in late May. “There is a small but incredibly vocal group of people in this community who feel that a requirement to wear masks would be a significant impingement on their personal freedoms.”
At the time, those same folks were pointing to promising local metrics, Riddell said. New cases of the novel coronavirus had leveled off. Teton County had flattened its curve.
Now the numbers are rising.
A recent uptick in COVID cases and an influx in travelers—including from coronavirus hotspots—highlights the need for such an order now, Riddell said Friday. Among the 19 new cases of the novel coronavirus confirmed in the past three weeks, 13 were imported. Those patients were either visitors or residents who left Jackson and returned. Meanwhile, the virus is also spreading within the community—five of those recent cases were transmitted among community members. On Monday, an additional five cases were confirmed, Riddell said Tuesday.
This comes amid a surge in cases statewide—Wyoming last week matched its single biggest day in confirmed cases. Nationwide, COVID cases are spiking in 39 states and America leads the world in coronavirus cases and deaths. According to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 case tracker, there have been more than 2.6 million COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and 129,544 deaths. Brazil comes in second with 58,314 deaths.
Face masks, health officials say, are crucial in shifting these trends.
“It is clear that masks are a simple, affordable solution that science is continuing to show has the potential to make a tremendous difference in the course of this pandemic. Masks can help save lives, and our way of life in a community that, at the end of the day, depends on its ability to receive visitors,” Riddell said Friday.
Research shows wearing face masks is fundamental in preventing the spread of COVID-19. That’s because face masks shield respiratory droplets, which transmit the disease, from traveling into the air when the person wearing the face mask coughs, sneezes, talks or raises their voice, the CDC notes. In other words, wearing a face mask protects the people around you. Given the high potential for asymptomatic carriers, health officials stress the use of masks to control the spread of the disease.
Riddell said public health orders must achieve their aim by the least restrictive means possible. Masks are certainly restrictive, he said, but they are not nearly as restrictive as another economic shutdown or shelter-in-place order.
“The Please Approach” Falls Short
Ahead of the council’s vote, officials heard testimony from business owners about aggressive interactions with visitors unwilling to wear masks in their establishments.
Sean Love, owner of Jackson Trading Company, says he began with “the please approach” — strongly encouraging his customers to wear masks. That didn’t work at his Town Square business, however. So for the last two weeks he has had signs posted requiring patrons to wear masks in his shop—something that has become a recipe for confrontation. He says his employees are now forced to impose a rule that some customers simply won’t follow.
“We’re having on average 10 to 15 negative, aggressive interactions per day,” Love said. “People pushing through, pushing past, being very aggressive, not willing to wear a mask, confrontations at the register.”
Love said about three or four of those daily interactions stem from folks who say they have medical conditions and cannot wear a mask. All in all, his employees, mostly high school and college students, are engaging in this dialogue with customers two or three times per hour. “We certainly don’t feel comfortable putting them in that position.”
Brianna Moteberg, owner of the apparel and accessory shop Altitude, said Sunday was the first day she has not been “face-to-face, yelled at, cussed at, or aggressively spoken to” since her business began mandating masks on Memorial Day weekend.
Each day, she says passersby see Moteberg’s sign notifying people they must wear masks in her store and they “use foul language.” While that is their right, Moteberg said, it is time to send a message to recalcitrant customers. “I don’t think I should be required to hire security over a mask in my store,” she said.
Moteberg is not the only person in the business sphere feeling unsafe.
Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce recently surveyed 160 people from the business community. Anna Olson, the chamber’s president, said 82 percent surveyed reported their staff were either “a little” or “very concerned” about their safety at work due to COVID-19.
Keeping the peace would be at the core of enforcing a mask mandate, Councilman Arne Jorgensen said. He emphasized that police would not be “looking to cite people” if a measure was enacted. But if folks are “rude, threatening or annoying,” akin to reports from local business owners near Town Square, “there’s an opportunity for enforcement to come into play.”
Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith said officers would enforce such a directive—one that is “overdue.”
He told Jackson Town Council that from a public health perspective he has “all of your backs and the community’s back.” But Smith was also concerned about the police’s role given their responsibilities are under scrutiny amid a national reckoning triggered by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Police are facing “criticisms” for enforcing laws that may be more appropriate for other entities, such as mental health, he said. “I think this falls square in the middle of that with it being a public health issue, and I do foresee the potential for conflict between law enforcement and some of these folks that have been described as angry and verging on violence.” Smith said officials and community members would need to support law enforcement “in doing what they need to do” to enforce a mask mandate.
Officials stressed Monday that a mask measure is, among other things, meant to mitigate another economic shutdown. Muldoon said given the reports from business owners, a health recommendation to wear masks, which Riddell issued in April, was clearly “not enough.”
“We are seeing an increase in COVID cases and we are seeing a return to community spread. We have few tools at our disposal,” he said. Muldoon acknowledged the pain of another shutdown and the consequences of doing nothing, which would yield a similar outcome. He said the “least inconvenient” tool is requiring masks in public spaces.
“The evidence shows that masks can protect you, but more importantly, they protect others.”
The Teton District Board of Health meets today at 1:30 p.m. to discuss a countywide face mask health order. Watch the meeting here.