WyoFile December 15, 2020 by Andrew Graham
Personal beliefs and local politics are driving inconsistent, often contradictory responses to Wyoming’s health orders from law enforcement, local elected officials and business leaders.
In the expanded public-health orders signed Dec. 7, the state left enforcement of both a mask mandate and a bar and restaurant curfew to local officials. The orders drew wide support from the state’s principal industries, healthcare organizations and even its Republican congressional delegation, but the reactions of would-be enforcers across the state have been far from universally cooperative.
In Sweetwater County, Sheriff John Grossnickle and County Attorney Dan Erramouspe issued a statement on Dec. 8 describing the mask mandate from Gov. Mark Gordon and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist as unenforceable because it would require law enforcement to assess someone’s medical condition.
The stance is “a reflection of their ethical obligations as elected officials and not a statement regarding the viability of face coverings in alleviating the spread of COVID-19,” it read. In an interview, Grossnickle called mask usage “a personal choice,” but said his refusal to enforce the mask order does not undermine its effectiveness.
“Just going out in public I see more people wearing a mask now,” the sheriff said.
In Rock Springs, that county’s largest town, police officers weren’t planning on tracking down and arresting citizens seen without masks either, Chief Dwane Pacheco said. However, Pacheco’s officers will respond to calls from businesses when customers violate the order.
The statewide order “gave legs and credibility to those businesses that wanted to protect their customers,” he said. “If a business owner asks us, we can take care of it. We can abate that call very easily.”
Pacheco also intends for his officers to enforce the new 10 p.m curfew for onsite consumption in the city’s bars, he said. The order does not require the bars to close at 10 p.m., he said, but it does rule against consumption — which Pacheco took to mean anything from smoking cigarettes to drinking a glass of water — after that time.
Pacheco called every bar in Rock Springs to discuss the order, he said. He was working with the county health department to ensure each bar received a physical copy of the new orders, he said last week, since some owners had raised the lack of such a delivery in his conversations with them.
Those small-business owners fear lost revenue during what is often peak service hours for bars, Pacheco said, while some question the logic of the 10 p.m curtailing of consumption.
Pacheco is sympathetic to the struggling businesses, he said, but as a law enforcement officer his mandate is to make the public health orders as effective as possible. He doesn’t understand the reasoning behind the dates that end deer hunting season either, he said, but “I trust that Wyoming Game and Fish biologists know more than I do.”
Rock Spring’s Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County had only one available intensive care unit bed available on Dec. 8, the day the sheriff and county attorney issued their press release. As of Monday, they had five ICU beds open, and an equal number of COVID-19 patients.
Some bars ignore order
Bar owners and managers in Riverton and Gillette had not received physical copies of the shutdown orders, they told WyoFile last week, and were staying open past 10 p.m.
At Ralff’s in Riverton, a bar employee said the establishment wouldn’t begin closing or ceasing service at 10 p.m. until someone official came by and told them to do so.
Fremont County does not have a public health officer and has not since July. Fremont County Sheriff Ryan Lee issued a statement saying his officers would not issue citations, according to the Casper Star Tribune.
The Riverton Police Department will also not enforce the governor’s orders, Riverton Mayor Richard Gard told WyoFile on Monday. Gard worries about economic impacts to his town’s residents and said the U.S. and Wyoming Constitutions protected people’s rights to the pursuit of happiness.
“Everyone is overly concerned with the virus in our area. We need the jobs,” Gard said. “The restaurant waitress, how is she going to pay for her rent if she doesn’t have a job?”
Gillette Police Department Chief Jim Hloucal also said his officers won’t issue citations to businesses and residents who ignore the new orders. Over the weekend, he did not get any calls about bars continuing service past 10 p.m.
“I’m assuming they complied,” he said.
The governor had not conducted sufficient outreach to Wyoming’s local leaders before issuing health orders, Gard said.
“The governor’s been really silent to mayors,” he said. “He reached out to business owners, but I don’t think he listened to them.”
Business coalitions support efforts to curb virus
Gordon and Harrist issued the new orders because months of a COVID-19 surge had put state’s healthcare system in jeopardy, his spokesperson Michael Pearlman said.
Gordon hoped law enforcement around the state would support the orders, Pearlman said, but the governor had not sought a heavy-handed approach.
“It’s more about caring for neighbors, and the governor has consistently respected the wishes of local officials,” Pearlman said.
In announcing the orders, Harrist also asked for law enforcement’s help. “We certainly do know that orders rely on local enforcement and would hope of course that they support public health efforts to keep the people safe,” she said during a Dec. 7 press conference.
Gordon, who has led most press conferences on the state’s COVID-19 response, was not present for that event. He had scheduling conflicts and couldn’t join, Pearlman said.
If some mayors and small business owners felt uninformed, associations representing some of the state’s larger industries were vocal in their support for the new health orders. Some had previously called for such action.
Thirteen executives and managers — representing the trona-mining, heavy machinery, agrochemical and other industries — signed a Nov. 12 letter asking Gordon to consider implementing a statewide mask order.
The group represented themselves as “Southwest Wyoming’s largest employers,” and cited quickly spreading infections in Sweetwater County. “The incidence of COVID-19 in the community now poses a significant threat to our organizations and our ability to maintain adequate staffing levels to keep our doors open,” they wrote.
After Gordon issued his order, other industry associations expressed support for it. The Petroleum Association of Wyoming endorsed the new rules in a press release. “The better we adhere to these guidelines, the faster we will see our communities emerge from the burdens of the virus,” the organization wrote.
The Wyoming Lodging and Retailing Association, which represents a wide swath of restaurants, hotels and retail businesses, also supported the governor’s orders. A mask mandate could protect such businesses from losing customers as COVID-19’s prevalence keeps people at home out of fear, not because of orders, WLRA executive director Chris Brown told WyoFile.
“What is lost with some people that don’t rely on folks coming into their business is there needs to be a level of public confidence in people feeling safe,” he said. “It’s really critical that folks feel confident going out and sitting down to eat dinner.”
Representatives for multiple industry groups who issued statements supporting the governor said they had been communicating with his office before the orders were issued. They had not been asked to endorse the order publicly, however.
“We did outreach to particularly the business community and the chambers of commerce in various counties around the state to let them know that we were doing everything possible to keep businesses open,” Pearlman said. “What we heard from them is, ‘we are supportive of anything short of closures.’”
Nearing a year-end deadline to spend its federal CARES Act money, the state paired the orders limiting consumption after 10 p.m. with a new round of CARES Act support through the Wyoming Business Council. Bars and restaurants that make their primary revenue from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. — the hours of closures — are eligible for up to $50,000 under the new program.
Such aid won grudging support for the orders from the Wyoming State Liquor Association. “When you’re told you’re going to have to do something but at the same time you’re extended a lifeline … that’s a little easier to swallow,” WSLA director Mike Moser said.
Moser saw the orders as a step to avoid a broader business shutdown, he said. Like the mayor of Riverton, he cited a hypothetical waitress trying to support herself, but in this case, in support of efforts to stop virus spread.
“People sometimes lose sight that preventing the spread of COVID isn’t just a personal safety thing,” he said. “It’s our employees, it’s our businesses, it’s the cocktail waitress trying to raise a kid.”
Moser pointed to the vaccine doses that began hitting Wyoming on Monday as evidence that the pandemic’s end is in sight. “So could you please humor us a bit?” he asked Wyoming residents, “for just long enough to get us through this.”