After four hours of discussion during a rare Saturday meeting, Jackson Town Council unanimously passed an emergency ordinance that temporarily bans gatherings of more than 100 people in the town of Jackson. The measure is intended to prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19.
Mayor Pete Muldoon urged council members to support the ordinance. “We’re all under a great deal of stress here. We’re charged with making emergency decisions to protect the public health and at the end of the day, that is our responsibility.”
Councilman Arne Jorgensen said this measure would help “flatten the curve,” referring to aggressive actions that are slowing the pandemic, such as social distancing.
The discussion brought to the surface the growing anxieties facing local business owners. Some feared the ordinance would shut down their operations.
“We’re super conflicted,” Gavin Fine, of Fine Dining Restaurant Group, said. “It’s really hard to be in the social gathering business when we’re told not to social gather.”
Fine says he is adapting quickly. He has taken steps at his restaurants to address hygiene and social distancing. That means positioning patrons’ tables farther apart and posting throughout his restaurants messaging from the health department. Fine has also stationed hand sanitizer dispensers “anywhere that people are touching money and at the host stands.”
Such actions represent a business community striving to evolve in the face of the unknown. But as more European countries implement nationwide lockdowns (namely Italy, France and Spain), it prompts questions about what actions American cities will be forced to confront in the next one to two weeks.
Fine worried: Jackson relies on the health of its service-based economy, “so the question is, how long is this going to last?”
“It’s really hard to be in the social gathering business when we’re told not to social gather.” – Gavin Fine, Fine Dining Restaurant Group
Jim Waldrop of The Wort Hotel, Silver Dollar and Cowboy Bar, gasped for air as he testified before the council. “I’m sorry I’m out of breath, I was watching [the meeting] from my office and just decided to run over.” Waldrop slogged through the fast-accumulating snow to reiterate to the council a message that surfaced during the first half of the meeting. That’s when public health officials updated the Town Council and Dr. Travis Riddell told officials: “It’s not about a number. It’s about density.”
To that end, 100 is a lousy number for Waldrop. He said passing an ordinance that bans 100 people or more from gathering in town would “likely close the Cowboy Bar.” Still, his tenor was largely supportive. Jackson Town Council is “doing the right thing for what they believe is the right reason,” he said.
At one point, Councilman Jim Stanford wondered if it was, in fact, the government’s place to enact such an ordinance.
“Yes,” Muldoon said. “It is the right message to send the public.”
Stanford’s tone shifted soon after: “When in doubt, shut it down,” he said before voting.
It was a sentiment shared by Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb, but he took it a step further. Newcomb made a special appearance during the Town Council meeting testifying before the council as a citizen: “I have a gut feeling that the right thing to do is shut down all businesses except essential services like grocery stores and pharmacies.” Newcomb suggested working out a compensation plan for businesses that would be affected under such a move.
Gathering… at a Distance
The ordinance doesn’t necessarily spell trouble for businesses like the Cowboy Bar, Muldoon said. He stressed that instead it was meant to signal to the community how a serious situation is unfolding here. Enforcement, or lack of, is also not a priority.
Chief of Police Todd Smith told councilors that local police are “a finite resource.” In other words, officers have little time to monitor the number of people gathering in restaurants and bars.
Still, Smith urged councilors to pass the measure, but as a non-binding resolution (without the legal teeth of an ordinance). “There is a crisis going on in this world right now. Let’s not waste time on sending this message,” Smith said.
None of this comforted Councilman Jonathan Schechter. Although he voted for the ordinance, he said he was “deeply uncomfortable” hastily passing such a measure. He suggested the council wait until Monday to spend more time with it and potentially shape the ordinance into a resolution. “I was comfortable with canceling the Hill Climb because there was a time-specific deadline. This, I think is a much more nuanced issue because of all of the ramifications.”
When it comes to passing future emergency policies, “I hope we can develop a method that allows for a little more reflection,” Schechter said.
Given how quickly the situation is evolving, time is a luxury the council couldn’t afford, Muldoon said. “None of these are easy decisions for any of us to make.”
The mayor pointed to the network of officials, from those in public health to public safety, who are tasked with making major decisions about the area’s local response to COVID-19 “with less than full information.”
“They are doing the best that they can and we have to do the best that we can. We want this community to survive this event and come out intact or as intact as we possibly can.”
Under the ordinance, businesses can still host groups of more than 100 if they follow certain protocols. They must provide space that can accommodate social distancing between people (six feet); offer hand hygiene and sanitation material; and clean and disinfect surfaces in such spaces.
The ordinance is in place through April 21. Once that window has expired, officials could vote to enact another such measure. Alternatively, they could vote to end the ordinance before that date.
The Town Council also voted Saturday to suspend public attendance at its meetings. Instead, people are encouraged to access meetings on the Town of Jackson’s website, where they are live-streamed.
Muldoon called for Saturday’s emergency meeting after the Wyoming Department of Health confirmed on Friday night its second case of COVID-19 in neighboring Fremont County. The patient is a retirement home resident who contracted the illness via “potential community spread,” state officials said Saturday.
Since then, the number of cases has risen. As it happens, nearly one hour after Jackson Town Council ended its emergency meeting on Saturday, Wyoming confirmed its third case of COVID-19. The Sheridan County man is linked to the state’s first diagnosis, also a person from Sheridan County. WDH says testing was performed in Colorado where the man is visiting.
Saturday’s meeting was the second emergency gathering of elected officials in as many days. On Thursday, town and county officials voted to cancel the World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climb and Rendezvous Fest.