Jackson Town Council Passes Mask Mandate

In the absence of an approved countywide measure, the council rushed to enact a face mask ordinance ahead of the busy holiday weekend.
Young protesters wear face masks during a June 14 Black Lives Matter demonstration in Jackson. (Robyn Vincent/KHOL)

by | Jul 3, 2020 | COVID-19, News

This Fourth of July will feel—and look—a lot different than Independence Days of recent memory. Annual celebrations are canceled and face masks are now mandatory.

Jackson Town Council on Friday unanimously passed a face mask ordinance to slow the spread of COVID-19 in effect until July 20. Violators could face a fine of up to $750.

As the nation reckons with a massive surge in COVID-19 cases, face mask mandates have been enacted all over the country to hopefully mitigate another economic shutdown. Officials are opting for such measures amid growing research demonstrating their efficacy in preventing the transmission of COVID-19. In Jackson, council members rushed to pass the directive amid an uptick in COVID cases and ahead of the busy Fourth of July holiday. The weekend has drawn visitors to the valley from across the nation hardly deterred by the coronavirus pandemic. As of July 1, cumulative valley lodging was 86 percent full, according to data from the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. That’s just three percentage points lower than average. 

The ordinance requires people to wear masks in indoor settings. People must don face coverings in businesses or while standing in line to enter such establishments, in healthcare facilities and while riding public transportation, in taxis or private car services. 

There are multiple exemptions, including those with medical conditions and children under six years of age. People are exempt while seated at the bar or table of a restaurant or while they are working in an office space. Schools are also exempt from the ordinance.

Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith told the council Monday that he will enforce such an order but worried about confrontations between police and people refusing to wear masks that have been “described as angry and verging on violence.” Amid increasing “criticisms” of police responsibilities, Smith said officials and community members would need to support law enforcement “in doing what they need to do” to enforce a mask mandate.

The vote comes after testimonies from business owners this week describing challenges and hostile encounters with customers protesting mask usage in their businesses. 

“We need your help keeping our employees safe as our town is starting to resemble photos of beaches in Florida and Missouri,” said John Frechette and Christian Burch, owners of Made, Mountain Dandy and Mursell’s Sweet Shop. “There are many people visiting from places where wearing masks isn’t a common practice.” 

Frechette and Burch are requiring people to wear masks in their stores and giving away more than 100 disposable masks per day, an unsustainable practice, they said. Meanwhile, their days “consist of speaking up or extinguishing aggressions about mask-wearing.” 

On Monday, when Town Council passed a nonbinding resolution in support of a mask mandate, Brianna Moteberg, owner of the apparel and accessory shop Altitude, discussed the unpleasant experiences she now regularly faces. Since her shop began mandating masks on Memorial Day weekend, she is “face-to-face yelled at, cussed at, or aggressively spoken to” on a daily basis.

 

“Our days consist of speaking up or extinguishing aggressions about mask-wearing.” 

 

These business owners are not alone. Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce recently surveyed 176 people from the business community. Eighty-two percent surveyed reported their staff were either “a little” or “very concerned” about their safety at work due to COVID-19.

But not everyone is pushing for a face mask mandate in Jackson. Gloria Courser submitted a lengthy written testimony about her observations on the Town Square. She estimated 66 percent of people were already wearing masks and cautioned the council against enacting a measure that could lead to discrimination lawsuits if business owners refuse service to unmasked customers. 

Bob Culver said he is “a fan of the carrot rather than the stick.” He urged council members to promote masks for those who want to use them and to avoid resorting to fines and punitive damages. 

Council members were unmoved. They cited the fraught experiences of business owners like Moteberg, Frechette and Burch. Still, they said enacting a town ordinance was a last resort. Health orders should be issued by Teton district health officer Dr. Travis Riddell, Mayor Pete Muldoon said. That, however, hinges on approval from state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist and her signature has become difficult to obtain.

The council’s vote comes three days after Riddell submitted to Harrist a mask mandate that she has yet to sign. 

It was déjà vu for Councilman Jim Stanford. He says the state has dragged its feet signing other countywide health orders and condemned the Board of Teton County Commissioners for “somehow fumbling a vote of support” for Riddell’s measure. 

“This is at least the third or perhaps the fourth instance when the state has been either slow or reluctant to act and this council has stepped up to act swiftly and decisively to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens, businesses and visitors.”  

Councilman Arne Jorgensen took a softer approach. He stressed that Wyoming is “a partner—it is not the enemy” and thanked the state for CARES Act funding that will help the county health department to expand testing and contact tracing. “I am hopeful that the state will continue to review the request Dr. Riddell has given to them and we will see a signing off of the order that would then be applied countywide.”

 

“This is at least the third or perhaps the fourth instance when the state has been either slow or reluctant to act and this council has stepped up to act swiftly and decisively to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens, businesses and visitors.”  

 

Muldoon, meanwhile, framed it as a moral dilemma. As an elected official, Muldoon said he knew “how hard it can be to do the right thing when there are loud voices telling you not to.” But those voices comprise a vocal minority and do not reflect the public’s best interests, he said. “It’s our job, whether it’s the governor or the mayor, to protect the health and safety of our constituents.”

Echoing Stanford’s discontent, Muldoon said he was “disappointed that the state of Wyoming was unwilling to sign a properly formatted, well-thought-out and well-researched public health order that was submitted days ago by our public health officer.”

“We all hoped that this order would have been signed before the holiday weekend and instead it appears that it’s going to languish in the offices of the Gordon administration for the duration of the holiday and consideration will resume when the holiday is over.” 

Harrist did not immediately respond to KHOL’s request for comment Friday. 

 

“We all hoped that this order would have been signed before the holiday weekend and instead it appears that it’s going to languish in the offices of the Gordon administration for the duration of the holiday.” 

 

During a press conference Wednesday, the state health officer reiterated her support for the use of face masks and “measures encouraging them.” She said she and her team, including state attorney general Bridget Hill, would have an answer “within a few days.”

The latest back-and-forth between local and state officials over health orders meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 follows controversy sparked by Teton County residents, Maurice “Jonesy” Jones and Dan Brophy.

According to a June 26 WyoFile story, the U.S. Department of Justice is “actively monitoring” Wyoming’s health orders for constitutional violations after those residents filed complaints with U.S. attorney Mark Klaassen. Their grievances center on Teton County health orders like a directive enacted in March that prohibited people from gathering with folks outside their households. In a letter to Jones and Brophy, Klaassen did not describe finding government overreach in local orders but said further measures would be subject to scrutiny.

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is KHOL's first news director. She has worked as a reporter and editor in Wyoming for the last decade and her work has aired on NPR stations throughout the West. When she's not sweating deadlines, Robyn sustains her nomadic heart by traveling the world with her notebook and camera in hand.

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