Wyoming state health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist signed a countywide face mask order Monday—one that local officials have been waiting weeks for her to approve—to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The order mandates people to wear face masks in public spaces with exceptions. Mouth coverings are required inside businesses or while waiting in line to enter any such space. People also must wear masks at doctor and veterinary offices, while using public transportation, in taxis and rideshare vehicles. All retail and commercial businesses must post signs notifying the public of the order.
Among the list of exempt folks include those with medical conditions or disabilities and the hearing impaired. People working in personal offices are exempt unless they are interacting with members of the public. Notably, minors are also exempt from the order though anyone three or older is “encouraged to wear face coverings.” The directive does not apply to people dining at restaurants, but masks are required when entering, exiting or moving about an eatery.
Teton District health officer Dr. Travis Riddell had hoped to enact this measure, in effect through July, weeks ago. He submitted a countywide directive for Harrist’s approval on June 30 ahead of the busy Fourth of July weekend as a huge influx of travelers poured into the valley filling hotels to near capacity. When the state did not act, Jackson Town Council stepped in July 3, after passing a resolution in support of Riddell’s order a few days prior, and unanimously approved a town ordinance mandating the use of face masks. That measure was set to expire July 20, the same day Harrist signed the countywide directive.
As the nation reckons with a massive surge in COVID-19 cases, face mask mandates have been enacted all over the country to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and mitigate another economic shutdown. Officials are opting for such measures amid growing research demonstrating their efficacy in preventing the transmission of COVID-19.
Ahead of the council’s July 3 vote, Mayor Pete Muldoon expressed his dismay with the state’s delay in passing the measure. “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,” he said.
In the following weeks, Riddell made amendments to the order at Harrist’s request while cases here continued to rise, sounding alarm bells for local officials.
Since then, some businesses have shut down due to employees testing positive for COVID and local infection rates have set new records with Teton County reporting 66 active cases as of Monday, according to the Teton County Emergency Management COVID dashboard. Young people comprise the majority of new cases, a statistic that concerns Riddell.
“First you see the spike in younger adults, then you see that spike distributing across the age spectrum, then you see hospitalization rates increase, then you see death rates increase,” Riddell said during a July 10 press conference. At the time, St. John’s had zero COVID patients. Now four people have been admitted for the novel coronavirus while 108 people are under quarantine orders. Meanwhile, statewide infections shattered a record Monday with 62 new COVID-19 cases.
During a July 8 press conference, Harrist said local government’s support for potential mask orders—a directive Gov. Mark Gordon says he is loath to enact—did factor into her decision-making process. Her signature came the same day that the Board of Teton County Commissioners unanimously passed a face mask resolution signaling their support for Riddell’s measure. (When it comes to health directives, the board cannot enact its own legally binding measures.)
Chair of the Board of Teton County Commissioners Natalia D. Macker told KHOL she waited until last week to make the resolution an agenda item because until then, there hadn’t been enough support for Riddell’s mandate.
Macker has been following Riddell’s health recommendation in place since April that advises all people to wear masks. She faithfully wears a face mask whenever her board meets. But the same cannot be said for all her colleagues and two commissioners said they opposed such a resolution as recently as July 8, the Jackson Hole News&Guide reported, largely due to concerns about enforcing Riddell’s measure.
A change of heart from Commissioners Mark Barron and Greg Epstein came after the Teton Village Association passed a face mask resolution July 10 and amid sustained public support for a mask mandate. Commissioners also learned Monday ahead of their vote that Harrist was close to signing Riddell’s measure.
Macker hopes the directive will be extended after its July 31 expiration date. “I think it’s really important that everyone recognizes this is an opportunity for us to help keep each other safe and help slow the spread in our community,” she said.
Violators of the Teton County health order could face criminal prosecution under Wyoming law. Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith has said he will enforce a mask mandate, but namely when it comes to irate visitors refusing to wear masks in local shops. That’s an issue several business owners testified about during recent Jackson Town Council meetings citing their safety and that of their employees as a key concern.