SWEETWATER COUNTY — The Sweetwater County Commissioners failed to pass a resolution Tuesday regarding health care autonomy, pursuant to the Wyoming Constitution, amid the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic due to lack of second on the motion.
District 13 Senator Tom James brought forth the resolution, in hopes of sending a clear message to both the residents of Sweetwater County and the Wyoming Legislature that Sweetwater County is “united”.
“This shows on paper that you’re united,” James said. “It shows I have the support of our county when I go to Cheyenne.”
James claimed the purpose of the resolution was to honor the Constitution of the State of Wyoming Article 1, Declaration of Rights, Section 38(a) providing that “Each competent adult shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions…”
James said government mandates concerning COVID-19 have “arguably resulted in social ills including increased unemployment, business closures, suicides, poverty, domestic abuse, homelessness, and alcohol and drug abuse.”
The resolution stated that if signed, the commissioners would refrain from county-level, virus-related mandates including, but not limited to, mandatory mask requirements, mandatory contact tracing, and mandatory social distancing.
However, the resolution was non-binding, meaning the resolution was a statement of support rather than a legal obligation to uphold.
Several Sweetwater County residents sent in comments in both support and opposition to the resolution. While some agreed that the county should send promise to protect the residents’ rights to make their own health care decisions, others argued that while that may be a right, with a contagious virus those personal decisions affect more than the person making them.
James said Goshen County has passed this very resolution, but was unsure of any other counties who have considered it. Commissioner Roy Lloyd said Campbell County did hear the resolution and chose not to pass it.
While the commissioners agreed with the sentiment of allowing residents to make their own health care decisions, a few commissioners had some issues with the resolution.
Message to Private Businesses
While considering the resolution, Commissioner Lloyd asked Senator James if he had spoken with any other Wyoming legislators about the resolution, and if so, what their position was. James said he had not had the chance to discuss the issue with any other elected officials.
However, Harold Bjork, co-presenter of the resolution, said he had spoken with other legislators about it and that they were in support, though he said he could not provide names at the time and needed to “look through his emails” to verify who they were.
Commissioner Lauren Schoenfeld said she had spoken to three legislators last week about the resolution, who had all expressed concerns about it.
One of the major concerns was that it would send the wrong message to private businesses who have enforced their mandates. The concern is that those private businesses would not feel supported by the county.
Commissioner Schoenfeld also asked if there was an issue with only considering one part of the Wyoming Constitution Article 1, Declaration of Rights, Section 38, Right of health care access.
Sweetwater County Deputy Attorney John DeLeon said there are two parts of Article 1 Section 38 that should be noted, including a “rights component” and a “legislative component”. Those components are as follows:
(a) Each competent adult shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions. The parent, guardian or legal representative of any other natural person shall have the right to make health care decisions for that person.
(c) The legislature may determine reasonable and necessary restrictions on the rights granted under this section to protect the health and general welfare of the people or to accomplish the other purposes set forth in the Wyoming Constitution.
Commissioner Schoenfeld noted that she does support the Constitutional right for people to make their own decisions in regards to health care, but that the commission also has a responsibility to support what the law says as a “general wellness for our community”.
Senator James and Bjork said the intent of the resolution was to give a voice to the county residents as well as assurance them.
“It’s about giving our people a voice that’s representing them rather than giving them mandates and recommendations,” James said.
Therefore, they said the resolution was meant to send a message rather than hold the commissioners to a legal obligation. However, DeLeon said the wording in the resolution left the intent up to interpretation. The wording he is specifically talking about is:
“To notify the public of its intent to refrain from any county-level virus-related mandate concerning individual health care decisions, including but not limited to mandatory mask requirements, mandatory contact tracing and mandatory social distancing.”
DeLeon said from a legal point of view, it is important that there are mechanisms available to honor any state-wide mandates.
“We’re currently in the 11th continuation of the state health orders, and so to be able to have all those mechanisms available is important,” DeLeon said.
When the county was deciding whether to require face coverings in county buildings or not, the Sweetwater County Attorney’s Office’s recommendation was to not include any wording in the resolution that would make face coverings mandatory. Rather, they suggested they make face coverings a recommendation.
DeLeon said the Attorney’s Office’s stance remains the same in this resolution and the wording should provide a recommendation. He said the wording could be changed from “refrain” to express the intended message.
Supporting Constitutional Rights
Commissioner Wally Johnson spoke in favor of the resolution as written, noting that it is their responsibility as elected officials to show their support. He said they took a stance on the second amendment, in which they declared Sweetwater County a Second Amendment Sanctuary County, and now it is time to show support for this Constitutional right.
“I think the people need to know where we stand on these things,” Johnson said.
Commissioner Lloyd said he supports the intent of the resolution but questioned whether it was necessary, as he believes the county has already sent this message through policy and procedure during their face coverings discussions.
“We’ve already kind of taken this stance without a resolution,” Lloyd said.
Commissioner Schoenfeld also pointed out that the county commissioners don’t have control over what the Sweetwater County health officials or doing, or what the state health officials are doing.
Commissioner Johnson posed the question of whether the state health officials have more authority than the governor, and if the county health officials have more authority than the county commissioners.
“I don’t believe they do or that they should,” Johnson said.
Johnson then moved to approve the resolution as written. No commissioner seconded the motion, therefore the resolution failed.