Teton County may soon have a mask order.
At an emergency Teton County Board of Health meeting Tuesday, Dr. Travis Riddell told the members he planned to submit a new public health order that afternoon requiring mask wearing in public indoor spaces. Riddell, the Teton County health officer, said recent developments spurred his decision.
“As many of you are likely aware we are seeing a very clear resurgence in cases over the last two to three weeks,” he told the board. “Now, unfortunately, that continues very much unabated.”
State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist needs to approve the new health order for it to go into effect. The Wyoming Department of Health doesn’t have a specific amount of time it takes for Harrist to review such orders, but spokeswoman Kim Deti said in an email the reviews are “generally fairly quick.”
Though Riddell’s order would be far-reaching, it wouldn’t require people to wear masks in all situations.
“COVID-19 seems to be much less likely to be spread outdoors, and so this order echoes that we’re mandating masks in public indoor spaces where the ability to achieve physical distancing is less likely,” he told the board.
The order would also require masks for people waiting in lines outside, but in general it has a narrow focus on indoor spaces. It makes a variety of exceptions for situations in which it would be impractical to wear one, such as when eating at a restaurant or having dental work done.
Riddell’s order comes quickly on the heels of local officials passing mask resolutions in support of such a mandate. The Jackson Town Council called a Monday special meeting to consider the resolution. A meeting notice was sent Saturday night to subscribers of town agenda alerts but not otherwise publicized. The council voted unanimously to support the resolution backing Riddell.
“I sure hope this goes into effect countywide as soon as possible,” Councilor Jim Stanford said at Monday’s meeting. “I think it’s a bit overdue.”
The council’s actions stood in contrast to the Teton County Board of County Commissioners, which considered having a discussion about the order Monday, but set no agenda to do so.
“I would say that we should deploy all the tools we possibly can to keep our community as functioning as possible,” commission Chair Natalia D. Macker told the News&Guide.
Deti said the state Health Department had given advice to county health officers that local support was important, so resolutions like the one the Town Council passed could be an integral part of having the order approved. The department also considers local factors, so tourism will certainly be part of Harrist’s deliberations.
COVID-19 cases are increasing in Teton County. As of Tuesday evening the JHCovid.com dashboard showed 23 active cases and a sharp uptick since June 24.
Given that tourism is picking back up and people have started socializing, Riddell said he’s aware masks won’t completely halt the outbreak. At Friday’s community update, he acknowledged the politicization of the debate, saying some claim mask requirements are an unlawful infringement of liberty while others view them as the only salvation.
“I can’t afford the luxury of extremism, and I reject both ends of that spectrum,” he said. “It is clear, however, that masks are a simple, affordable solution.”
In the Tuesday Board of Health meeting, Riddell addressed one of the standard detractions aimed at mask orders, medical exemptions. He said the order has a clause that says people don’t have to wear masks in public spaces if that would impede their mental or physical health.
Some in the community have called for exemptions for specific medical conditions, but he felt being vague allowed it to apply in more situations.
“My opinion was that it was the best choice to allow someone who has concerns about such health issues to discuss that with their own personal physician,” he said.
In Monday’s meeting, the Town Council addressed another of the common reasons brought up in opposing masks orders, that they are illegal and unenforceable. Jackson Police Chief Todd Smith spoke about that at Monday’s meeting. He told the council he saw potential for conflict with visitors or locals who disagreed with such orders, but that enforcing the orders was part of the job.
“We’re prepared to go out and do what we need to do to take care of our community,” he said.
As for their legality, Mayor Pete Muldoon said he thought such orders were well within Riddell’s power. However, he said, given the legal structure of the United States, anyone who disagreed would have their chance at recourse if the mask order becomes official.
There are “voices that are suggesting this is an infringement on constitutionality and freedom of choice,” Muldoon said at Monday’s Town Council meeting. “You know, there’s a mechanism to determine that: It’s called the courts.”