From the local to the state to the federal level, officials are gradually coming into alignment on public health orders to slow the spread of COVID-19.
As different governing bodies tackled the problem in fits and starts, it took the past week to reach a unified response with new state health orders, lauded by Wyoming’s congressional delegation, ultimately augmenting town and county actions.
First, the Jackson Town Council fast-tracked a meeting Friday to unanimously approve an ordinance backing Teton District Health Officer Travis Riddell’s formal but non-binding recommendation. He advised that, outside of work or school, people gather only with people who “live in the same residence.”
The County Commission then followed suit, voting unanimously Monday morning to also support Riddell’s recommendation.
“We don’t always see the prevention play out in the numbers, because we aren’t tracking the number of cases that we’re preventing from occurring by people making choices,” County Commission Chair Natalia D. Macker said Monday as the county board weighed in. “When we talk about asking people to make good choices, the Health Officer’s recommendation is an example of what that looks like, and what we can all individually do.”
The same day, St. John’s Health confirmed the county’s third coronavirus-related death, and the governor issued a long awaited and debated statewide mask mandate, as well as orders limiting gatherings to 10 people.
Wrangling at the county
Three commissioners came into Monday’s meeting ready to support Riddell’s recommendation.
But two needed more convincing. Commissioners Greg Epstein and Mark Barron ticked through concerns: constitutional issues; making a health issue political by voting on it as an elected board; whether an order regulating some business activity, which Riddell’s recommendation was not, was appropriate; and whether more action was needed after the County Commission sent a letter to the community urging “individual responsibility.”
Epstein asked how the COVID-19 situation compared to the week before, when St. John’s Health CEO Paul Beaupre warned that the hospital was nearing capacity, starting the policy deluge in Jackson Hole.
Director of Health Jodie Pond said the situation was improving slightly, but that she was wondering whether a dip in infections was a result of people not getting tested after Thanksgiving travel. The latest numbers available at press time showed the hospital reporting nine confirmed COVID-19 patients in the primary care unit (including one in obstetrics), one in the intensive care unit, and 83% of ICU beds available.
Last week, she and Beaupre had asked for a unified message from town and county elected officials. Every little bit helps, she said Monday.
She also warned that “we’re in that dark purple color,” referring to a common metric used to map the severity of infection across different localities.
“It would be nice to even be in red quite frankly,” Pond said.
Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery and Commissioner Mark Newcomb reminded Epstein and Barron that commissioners were being asked to support a recommendation, not a mandate.
Newcomb got sharp after Epstein asked about whether the County Commission’s letter stood on its own.
“It looks like the officer is in line with our wisdom,” Newcomb said. “Why don’t we go ahead and back each other up?”
The board did so.
Unity from state, federal leaders
A few hours later, Gov. Mark Gordon announced a new statewide mask order, a first for the administration.
The announcement came with changes to state health orders that require bars and restaurants to close between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. for “onsite consumption”; limit diners and bar patrons allowed to sit together to groups of six or fewer; and otherwise limit group workout classes and gatherings where “required distancing” is not followed to 10.
“Our state and those surrounding us are facing a hospital capacity crisis that now compels us to take additional action,” Gordon said in a press release. “With these actions we can avoid taking the more drastic step of closing schools and businesses.”
Gordon and his wife, Jennie, both have COVID-19 and did not appear at a press conference later that day where State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said bars and restaurants that serve skiers and snowboarders on or near resorts will be impacted by the new hour restrictions. Ditto resorts’ “confined spaces,” where only 10 people can gather when there’s not adequate social distancing between groups. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort did not confirm by press time whether that will limit the Aerial Tram’s capacity to 10.
But otherwise, Harrist said, resorts are able to operate.
“I’ve certainly reviewed the plans for the ski resorts in Jackson Hole and know that they are taking measures to require masks and ensure that social distancing is occurring,” she said. “Outdoor activities in large spaces that aren’t confined spaces, like a ski resort, can go on because those kinds of settings involve distancing; they involve being outdoors.”
As Wyoming became the most recent state to adopt a statewide mask order, joining 37 others, Wyoming’s U.S. Senators Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Congresswoman Liz Cheney supported the move in a joint statement.
“We’ve lost 280 people in Wyoming and more than 280,000 Americans to this virus so far. It’s a real and significant threat,” they wrote. “It’s not a cure all, but wearing a mask and practicing social distancing goes a long way in stopping the spread. These actions will help protect our family, friends and neighbors while still allowing us to keep our state open and working.”