State and County Officials Differ on Approaches to COVID Spike

Teton County's public health officer is asking to limit local gatherings to just ten people as the state stands pat without a mask ordinance.
A masked couple in a crowd. Wyoming and Teton County health officials are trying to limit large gatherings, either through recommendations or ordinances. (Shutterstock)

by | Nov 17, 2020 | COVID-19, Health, News

At a press conference Friday, Governor Mark Gordon gave an impassioned speech about Wyoming’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases. He was especially angry at Wyomingites who were not taking the virus seriously.

“We are being knuckleheads about this,” he said. “With every piece of information that is conveyed, somebody comes up with some other bogus piece of information to try to disprove it.”
And yet, Gordon balked on the importance of masks.

“My point has never been facemasks. My point has been to act responsibly,” he said. “We know the things that we can do. Face masks can be helpful. They absolutely can be helpful. But I’m not saying that that is a solution.”

In a Teton County COVID press conference on Friday, County Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell responded aggressively. He cited a survey in which just about 66 percent of Wyomingites reported wearing a mask “most of the time” while in public. That’s the lowest percentage in the nation by about ten points.

“I find that statement (from Gordon about masks) factually inaccurate. Twenty-one county health officers, the Wyoming Hospital Association, and the unanimous Board of the Wyoming Medical Association have all been urging the governor to mandate masks for weeks,” Riddell said. “Masks are not a politically inconvenient sideshow. Until we have a vaccine, masks are the primary solution.”

County and state officials differ on many aspects of COVID response, but they both agree on one thing: the seriousness of the situation. With case rates, hospitalizations, and deaths all going up statewide this past week, Governor Gordon said that Wyoming needs to “get its head in the game.”

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon at the COVID-19 Press Conference on Friday. (Screenshot)

“Ask yourself, do you feel better today about what’s going on in this state than you felt maybe in June, or July, or August, when we were one of the lowest states for infection rates? We were one of three states that could have a state fair. We had a carnival going,” he said. “Do you think we can do that now without running a risk on everything? Our capacities are overwhelmed.”

Gordon expressed serious concern for small businesses around the state as federal funding dries up, and for the mental health of burned-out healthcare workers. He struck an uncharacteristically somber tone when explaining how dire the situation is.

“And at this point, with these trends, there’s been a lot of people that may not be there for Christmas,” he said.

Gordon seemed to be wrestling with the balance between the traditional Republican values of individualism, and the increasing need for state leadership on COVID.

“We’ve relied on personal responsibility throughout this pandemic,” he said. “So, ask yourself, has that really been working? Have people been taking the responsibility we asked them to? Deaths and hospitalizations are increasing. So, my problem is, if I can’t rely on you, we’re going to have to do something else.”

But that “something else” wasn’t clear. In fact, no additional restrictions were actually put in place during the press conference. Instead, Gordon simply extended all current orders by one week. Travis Riddell expressed that the state isn’t acting fast enough.

“The orders they released today were, in fact, unchanged,” Riddell said. “I’m not willing to wait this time to make a move. And I have submitted a variance to the state that will limit gatherings in Teton County to no more than ten people.”

Riddell says even further restrictions could be enacted soon if the local curve is not flattened. On Friday, a local school district voted unanimously to move all classes online, not because of an outbreak within school facilities, but because too many faculty members are in quarantine from community spread outside their work.

“The irony of keeping theaters, gyms, bars, restaurants, all open while school remains closed is not lost on me,” Riddell said. “And I will say that a return to stay-at-home orders has to remain on the table, especially if our healthcare system becomes more taxed.”

Variances to state health guidelines can take days to weeks to enact, so Teton County Health officials hope the state is motivated to move faster, and to renew its messaging on masks. Eight other counties statewide currently have pending requests to enact local mask orders.

Meanwhile, Wyoming’s GOP just passed a resolution opposing the state declaring itself in a state of emergency. That means, if it passes, that the state wouldn’t legally be able to make any additional health orders. Mark Gordon has said he’s likely to enact measures this week.

“What we’re looking at is trying to calibrate a response that’s proportionate to the challenge we see,” he said.

Travis Riddell argues that this moment is the current generation’s version of the Battle of the Bulge. This battle was the final German counterattack against Allied forces in World War II, a bloody affair that’s currently the third-most deadly campaign in American military history. U.S. troops then were able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and push into Germany to achieve victory.

Coronavirus hospitalizations in Wyoming, per the COVID Tracking Project. (Screenshot)

So, what’s the light at the end of the tunnel for this generation? A vaccine. Good news regarding the effectiveness of vaccine trials came last week. According to Riddell, people just need to hold off until then, stop the spread, and save lives.

“At this time, no one is being asked to run to a hail of machine gunfire. We’re just being asked to stay home, not gather, wash our hands and wear a mask,” Riddell said. “If the Greatest Generation could spend Christmas in a foxhole in the forest of the Ardennes, I think we can manage Thanksgiving on Zoom this year.”

Wyoming currently ranks fourth in the nation in terms of the Coronavirus rate per 100,000 people. Teton County, with 171 active cases, is even worse off than the rest of the state.

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About Will Walkey

Will is KHOL's newest reporter and producer. Originally from Tacoma, Washington, he recently graduated from Columbia University with a Master's Degree in journalism. He likes to read and write about housing, local politics, and history, and spends most of his free time fishing or biking. He's excited to be living in Wyoming, and looks forward to honing in on his unique radio voice by highlighting the locals that make Jackson special. Contact Will with tips at will@jhcr.org, and follow him on Twitter at @WillWalkey.

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