Jackson and Driggs Mayors Reflect on ‘Whirlwind’ Pandemic Year

KHOL spoke to Jackson Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson and Driggs Mayor Hyrum Johnson about the challenges of the past year and what life might look like this summer.
Driggs and Jackson mayors
Johnson, left, and Morton Levinson, right, urge local residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to speed up economic recovery from the pandemic. (Courtesy of Hyrum Johnson and Hailey Morton Levinson)

 

There’s a lot of emotion that comes up for Mayor Hyrum Johnson of Driggs when you ask him to look back over the past year-and-change of the pandemic.

“Wow, it—what a whirlwind this year has been,” he said with a sigh in a recent phone interview.

Driggs reported one of the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Idaho in March 2020. The period since then, Johnson said, has been painful but also a time of growth.

“It’s been heartwarming and exciting to see how the public has stepped up and supported each other through the pandemic,” he said. “We faced the possibility of many businesses closing their doors. There are communities where that was the reality and remains a reality. And because people were willing to act as a community, most of our businesses have survived this and even thrived.”

As of Monday, Driggs has officially rescinded its local mask mandate, though businesses can still require them with the city’s support. Victor and the Teton County, Idaho, Board of Commissioners are expected to follow suit this week. But Johnson said that doesn’t mean Teton Valley residents should think they’re totally done with masks.

“I hear stories from other parts of the country where people have gotten militant or vocal about not wanting to wear a mask on private property. And I think that they forget that neighborliness is an important trait. We’re all in this together,” Johnson said. “Whether or not you believe in the pandemic or believe in the efficacy of masks, that doesn’t matter. It’s about being a good neighbor. So, my hope is that we won’t have any confrontations or issues there.”

Over Teton Pass in Jackson, a mask mandate is still in effect through at least May 17, and Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson is gearing up for a busy tourist season. KHOL asked her how “normal” area residents can expect this summer to feel. She said that’s partially up to how much of the community gets vaccinated.

“Folks want to come be in the outdoors, be somewhere where there is more space. Luckily, we have a lot of that,” she said. “But knowing that our service industry employees, all of our tourism industry employees will be impacted by our visitors, that’s just another reason for us each individually to get vaccinated and as a community to really encourage it. Because we know it’s coming.”

Asked whether she expects to see some public health restrictions linger throughout the summer, Morton Levinson said she couldn’t be sure without consulting County Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell but that as a small business owner herself, she suspects the answer might be yes.

“As one business owner… that serves people food at a bed and breakfast and hosts them to stay, I do expect some of these things like the dining or the spacing out to continue. And we’ll probably do so on our own, even if the mandates aren’t there, just knowing that we’re not to herd immunity with 80% of people being vaccinated and that we just want to do our part in protecting everyone that we can.”

About 53% of the overall population in Teton County, Wyoming, and 65% of adults aged 18 and older is fully vaccinated as of April 26, according to the latest statistics from the Wyoming Department of Health. That’s the highest rate of vaccination of any county in the state by far.

Teton County, Idaho, is at 45% vaccination for residents aged 16 and older, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, which ranks it not at the top but among the more vaccinated counties in the Gem State.

Like Morton Levinson, Mayor Johnson is also encouraging more residents to get the shot.

“I look forward to the number being 100%,” Johnson said, deadpan, before breaking into laughter. “Just kidding, I know we won’t ever get there. I know there are folks who choose not to vaccinate and that’s their right. I am encouraged by what we’re seeing, though.”

Johnson said he hopes his county might eventually reach about 80% vaccination and that it’ll take a community effort in order to get there. In the meantime, both Teton Counties are currently in the lowest risk levels for COVID-19.

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About Kyle Mackie

Kyle is a multimedia journalist who joined KHOL as news director in January 2021. Prior to moving west, she reported on education, immigration, racial justice and more for WBFO, the NPR affiliate in Buffalo, NY. With a background in international reporting, Kyle has also worked in Israel and the Palestinian territories and the Western Balkans. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs and geography from The George Washington University and master’s degree in journalism from the City University of New York. When she’s not out reporting, Kyle can usually be found on outdoor or urban adventures: running, hiking, biking, seeing live music and exploring the best local food spots are all favorite activities.

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