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Jackson Hole, WY News

Business owners left to enforce piecemeal mask restrictions

Idea of countywide order is resisted by some who see that as infringement of their liberties.

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  • 6 min to read
Mask requirements

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Every day, at some point, Brianna Moteberg has to tell someone to wear a mask.

It’s not a conversation she relishes, but the owner of Altitude, a boutique on Town Square, requires that masks be worn in her store, and every day a potential customer comes in and tries to shop without one. When she asks those customers to don one, which she provides, some do, others simply leave, and a few lay into her over the rule, sometimes using coarse language not fit for print in this newspaper.

Most people are civil, but “you do have the ones who come into the store and want to make a scene,” Moteberg said.

She and other business owners find themselves in the unenviable position of telling customers to cover their faces in part because Teton County doesn’t have a mask requirement. Not every shopkeeper requires face coverings, but those who do are forced to defend such decisions without the benefit of a government edict.

If that existed, Moteberg said, it would give business owners cover, allowing them to point to communitywide restrictions rather than a personal decision. Beyond the public health aspect of wearing masks, she sees it as a financial necessity.

Scientific literature increasingly shows masks — even those made of cloth — are effective at slowing or stopping transmission of the coronavirus as long as the majority of a community uses them. So if tourists and locals alike wore them, Moteberg projects businesses could stay open and serve customers without fear the virus would spread rapidly.

Without a mask order in place, the potential for a second spike in cases and a second economic downturn could be higher.

“It’ll be detrimental,” she said. “There’s not enough government funding that is going to help a business be able to get out of the loss that they will incur if we are shut down during the height of our season of June through October.”

A recommendation, not an order

Teton County elected officials have expressed multitudinous support for mask wearing but have been hesitant to enact an enforceable order, which Moteberg and others want. In public comment on masks sent to the Town Council in the past couple of weeks since active COVID cases started rising, roughly 80% have pushed for an official order.

Mask requirements

Brianna Moteberg, owner of Altitude designer clothing in downtown Jackson, is one of several business owners telling all patrons to wear masks. She said some customers take issue with the requirement.

Moteberg wants the Town Council to at least make a strong statement, but Mayor Pete Muldoon isn’t sure the council can say anything beyond the public health recommendation already in place that encourages it.

“That seems to be, you know, as far as an official recognition of what we ought to be doing as good as anything we can do,” he said.

In looking for support for a mask order, business owners aren’t seeing any official backing from the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. The chamber worked closely with the Teton County Health Department on the reopening plan that jump-started the economy, which doesn’t include any specific restrictions on masks.

With basically every sector of the economy and government recommending masks, including the chamber, Vice President Rick Howe doesn’t see it as his organization’s place to step into the political arena and take a side on the debate.

“It’s up for the politicians to decide if it’s a mandatory order,” Howe said. “You know, if that’s something that businesses or people in the valley think would help, then certainly it’s something they should consider.”

That leaves business owners like Moteberg looking at politicians as their best recourse, but without advanced degrees in public health, elected officials don’t feel they are the best option to decide. Basically, the order boils down to one man, Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell.

Riddell has the power to enact a public health order, with the blessing of State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist, that would require masks countywide. So far, he hasn’t taken that step, but Muldoon has said in Town Council meetings that if Riddell thought it was necessary and couldn’t obtain approval at the state level, the council could authorize an order that applied only in the town.

Pete Muldoon

Pete Muldoon

That isn’t the best option, officials say.

“It’s far better to have Travis do something than it is to have the town alone do something, because he can mandate it for the entire county,” Town Councilor Jonathan Schechter said.

At the beginning of the outbreak, the scientific literature was not clear on masks’ effectiveness at slowing the transmission of COVID-19. In recent weeks, however, the science has solidified around their effectiveness.

Though cloth masks do not stop all viral particles because their weave is too loose, they can still stop a majority of viral particles from a contagious individual. One model from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology found that if 80% of a population wore masks, transmission would be halted.

In his late May recommendation that people wear masks anytime they interact with people outside their immediate families and cannot socially distance, Riddell cited dozens of sources as evidence. Even so, he has refrained from instating an order in part because of political considerations and in part because he doubts an order would be more effective.

“That’s something that we just have to face as a community, that if we ever were to do a mask mandate there would be significant blowback,” Riddell said.

Local resistance

A vocal faction both locally and nationally has taken issue with mask wearing, arguing they are ineffective and an infringement on personal liberties. Gloria Courser, a 22-year Jackson resident, has become a de facto face of the resistance to mask wearing.

Courser, who calls herself “not anti-mask but pro-liberty,” wrote an opinion piece that published Sunday on the Daily Caller website.

COVID-19 closure protest

Gloria Courser and Rebecca Bextel chat April 20 as people gathered for lunch and discussion about re-opening Teton County’s economy on the Town Square. The gathering concluded with those in attendance signing a petition threatening legal action against local elected officials unless they rescind or revise the county’s health orders, which petitioners argue are in violations of both the United States and Wyoming constitutions.

Outside of the mask controversy, publishing on the Daily Caller drew fire, including from Muldoon, because the conservative news source has in the past published authors with white supremacist views. Those authors have included Jason Kessler, who organized a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In a letter to officials and the media Tuesday, Courser said that she didn’t know of the publication’s history when she wrote the article and that co-founder Neil Patel told her the Daily Caller had not published articles with those views and now vets its authors more thoroughly.

As for masks, her article took issue with what she saw as a fear response in Jackson to the virus and lambasted the idea of a mask requirement, saying Riddell hadn’t thought it through well enough.

“He wanted to create a law that had no enforcement, no plans for medical exemptions,” she told the News&Guide. “There was no plan.”

In her opinion piece she described making a public records request for the research behind a potential order and a petition that garnered 1,200 signatures of locals and visitors. She credits those actions with being part of the process that convinced Riddell and elected officials to instead settle on a recommendation.

Muldoon said he was “disappointed someone from our community would support a website like that by writing for them.” He also pointed to other questions elected officials have yet to answer on the issue.

“Are we inviting, you know, more armed protesters down to Town Square?” he said of enacting an order. “Do we want to put shop owners in the position of having to enforce that?”

Courser emphatically denied that resistance to a mask order would be violent or intimidating. Faced with the same questions, other communities have decided that, yes, they put business owners in charge of enforcement, obviously with backing from law enforcement. Counties across Texas have started requiring masks in public places, sometimes even in restaurants.

Courser said part of the problem with the local potential mask order was that it would have been “arbitrary and capricious.” She pointed to a lack of medical exemptions as one example, but officials in Texas have seemingly figured out a lawful solution.

“Government cannot require individuals to wear masks,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott told The Texas Tribune. “Local governments can require stores and business to require masks. That’s what was authorized in my plan.”

How would it work?

Enforcement may be the most difficult piece of any mask order. Determining if it carries a penalty or whether business owners can just ask customers to leave is still an open question.

Jackson Whole Grocer mask requirements

Caitlin Brooks, marketing assistant, readies the new signage in late May outside Jackson Whole Grocer notifying customers that as of June 1, face coverings would be required to enter the store. While face coverings are recommended in businesses, many have not made it a requirement.

Even for the Town Council, it can be tough. Jackson Hole Tea Party member Bob Culver went to a recent council meeting without wearing a mask, even though Muldoon said there is a requirement to wear one. Culver said that he didn’t see any signs notifying attendees of the requirement and that he would have donned one had someone asked him to.

Courser and Culver both said it was OK for businesses to ask customers to wear masks, but the same can’t be said for local government. Culver said the town could be more vocal in its encouragement of masks and should provide them to businesses if it wants people to wear them: “It’s better to approach with a carrot than a stick,” he said.

Since the chamber is providing thousands of masks to businesses and tourists, that is pretty close to the state of affairs for businesses now. Should it stay that way, shopkeepers like Moteberg will continue to decide how to enforce mask requirements in their establishments.

They’ll have to do so against a backdrop of rising cases and worry about a second economic shutdown. If history holds true, they might have to contend with some coarse language from customers.

This article has been updated to show that the white nationalist rally Jason Kessler organized was in Charlottesville, Virginia. — Ed.

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

(12) comments

Travis Eva

The NAG leans so far left they can’t keep their finger off the scale even when it’s an easy presentation of pros and cons. What a shameless slandering of Gloria Courser building a reverse straw man argument in a backhanded fairness fail. The clumsy attempt to use science to lead the reader to the writers conclusion was embarrassing. A report from Hong Kong is our science? What about our own surgeon general recently beseeching us to: “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!”? It’s a complicated matter—journalisms job, outside of op eds, isn’t supposed to be leading the witness. Do better.

Engage Staff
Audience Engagement

Thank you for your sharing your opinions, Travis.

You are correct that at one point in time – many weeks ago – the surgeon general beseeched us to stop wearing masks. It is incorrect to say that he has said that "recently." Most recently, Adams has recommended wearing masks, and he has based that change of opinion on studies like the one in Hong Kong, those in many other countries and also in the U.S.

Adams says that when he urged Americans not to buy face coverings suggested that "there was not a high degree of asymptomatic spread." He also cited fears about people hoarding personal protective equipment, a concern from early on in the pandemic when hospitals had a depleted supply.

He has explained his change of tune with comments such as these: 

"It's important for people to understand that once upon a time we prescribed cigarettes for asthmatics, and leeches and cocaine and heroin for people as medical treatments. When we learn better, we do better," Adams said.

"Science is about giving the best recommendations you can and when you learn more, you change those recommendations. Our recommendations have changed and now people of America — important to know, you should wear a face covering."

Patrick Tompkins

I hate wearing a mask, but we all should be respectful of a business's requirements. Business owners have a right to require them, and customers have the right to shop elsewhere if they don't agree with those requirements.

Konrad Lau

Ultimately, deciding to wear a mask in public should be an individual’s decision.

Ultimately, deciding whether or not to allow customers into your store is a personal decision. Have the conversation and if they resist your wishes, ask them to leave.

The last thing we need is a police force spending time enforcing mask-wearing when they already have PLENTY to do as it is.

Next, will we be asking the police to enforce toilette flushing regulations.

If people don’t understand the concerns surrounding the ChiCom Flu by now, they will never get it.

If people don’t respect other’s wishes regarding protective equipment usage, my question is: Do you really want to business with folks like that?

You wouldn’t allow people to enter your establishment without shoes or a shirt. What is the difference?

This article reflects folks overwhelming desire to eliminate all conflict from their lives. Life is a series of conflicts.

Everyone needs to grow up.

Everyone…

anne harrison

It's so simple. The clearer and more uniform the requirement, the easier it is to enforce. If the current rate of spread continues in Jackson, would restaurant and bar owners prefer that they get closed down again, as has happened in Florida and Texas? We need to act, and act now. A uniform requirement could help us avoid returning to the way things were this winter and spring. The science is so overwhelming on this. Why is the health commissioner resisting doing making a countywide order. Those who argue a mask requirement is an infringement on their rights wear seat belts without question. What's the difference? And by they way, those non-mask wearers are infringing on MY rights by NOT wearing a mask.

dave sundquist

wear a mask ! think of someone besides yourself !

Christina Pearson

Is "my mask protects you and your mask protects me" the problem, that our sense of community is so long gone that the virus has become more an issue of liberty than caring about your fellow Americans? If the mask protected me and me alone, might you see that liberty sentiment go right out the window? This makes me so mad, so red with anger, so livid I can barely breathe. I cannot comprehend this. A healthy, active 30-year-old neighbor is immuno-compromised - this isn't just about old people. It's about preemies, folks in cancer treatment, the list goes on and on. I guess we just don't care about them. And the thing that escapes all these liberty-or-give-me-death folks - the faster we get rid of this "fake" virus, the faster we can move on to a semblance of a normal life, and that means WEARING A MASK. All the time spent self-isolating to slow the virus has now become a colossal waste, so moving onto Plant B is everyone WEARING A MASK. They even wore them during the Spanish flu, but we seem to have become more stupid as the decades wore on.

gloria courser

Tom, you state that Texas officials “Have seemingly figured out a lawful solution“ in response to my pointing out the lack of medical exemptions in any plan. But, the quote you included from Republican Governor Greg Abbott mentioned nothing about medical exemptions. So, please explain how that addressed/answered my question about medical exemptions?

gloria courser

I have a few thoughts after reading the story. When I was interviewed twice to provide my comments, I did not completely realize what the main narrative of the story would be. I knew it was going to be about masks, but I did not realize it was going to be specifically about local businesses and how they would discuss their individual policies with shoppers.Now that I have read the article, I wonder why there needed to be any mention at all of the Daily Caller Op Ed I wrote and the allegations about the publication being associated with writers with ties to white nationalism. That bit of information did nothing to add to this article about local businesses, so it does appear to me that it was only inserted for sensationalism.

Also, I find it interesting that only one business owner was interviewed and that business owner was an individual that is absolutely in favor of a countywide mask order. For balance, responsible journalism might have included at least one more interview of a business owner who does not want a county wide mandate to provide their feedback in regards to the situation.

And as far as the Daily Caller and it’s platform “raising some eyebrows” that included Mayor Muldoon’s, that is not quite representative of the truth. It absolutely all started with Mayor Muldoon and it wasn’t simply that he was “disappointed”. He chose to slander my name and attempt to put a target on my back on his personal Facebook page while not allowing me to either defend myself or post comments. If anyone is interested, go to Pete Muldoon’s personal Facebook page and view the conversation there.

If anyone is interested in the non-sensationalized version of the story, I will be happy to share it either in person over coffee, by email, or over the telephone. Just reach out to me on Facebook. I have a public page.

Zach Jones

So instead of refuting or debating the local writer’s article, we attempt to associate them with someone else’s writings. Makes sense. Par for the course for all parties involved.

Additionally, where are the references to the scientific, peer reviewed studies that show masks achieve little to no benefit? They’re not hard to find; start with a recent one in the NEJM and one released by NIH in February. If you don’t want to be fair and balanced in your reporting, just say so.

Lastly, to the shop owner, I’m not sure why we should feel sorry for you. You have the freedom to decide what happens in your store, and I think that is a wonderful thing. I don’t recall outcry from square stores asking town council to ban sale of ice cream, even though many stores have signs saying keep your Haagen Dazs and Moo’s out. If someone is going to avoid your store because of a mask requirement, they probably weren’t going to make a purchase anyway. Run your store your own way, and let others run theirs their way. It’s okay to have different opinions and business policies!

Jim Tomlinson

@Zach Jones..... Couldnt have said it better myself. Great comment! And im not being sarcastic

Tom Hallberg Staff
Tom Hallberg

Thanks for reading, Zach. I want to clarify why there aren't references to studies that show masks have little to no benefit. I strive to include the most complete scientific information in my articles, and the vast majority of studies done pre- and post-COVID show that even cloth masks have some efficacy in reducing viral shedding or limiting the distance viral particles travel, thus reducing the likelihood of spread. Many studies done both during prior influenza outbreaks and during this current pandemic show that community wide mask wearing would have positive effects on limiting spread. That includes several studies you can find on the NIH website, so referencing studies that show they aren't effective would give undue weight to results that aren't being replicated by other scientists. Fair and balanced reporting on scientific topics generally focuses on studies that can be replicated by other scientists, which creates a provable trend.

As for the NEJM one, the researchers released a statement following that study clarifying they were speaking about encounters in which people are passing each other, which already have a single-digit percentage potential of passing the virus. For instances in which people have prolonged encounters the the researchers said they "were asking for more mask wearing not less." — Tom

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