Commissioners have sidestepped a request from their county health officer to back a countywide mask order that the doctor said could help slow the spread of COVID-19 as visitors flock to Jackson Hole.
Teton County District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell had asked both the town and county to pass resolutions showing support for his order before he sent it to the state for approval.
The town voted 5-0 in favor of a resolution of support.
The county so far has decided not to vote a similar measure up or down.
Natalia D. Macker, chairwoman of the Teton County Board of County Commissioners, said she hasn’t called a vote on the matter because she hasn’t seen support from the board for doing so.
“I asked if the commissioners wanted to put it on the agenda, but there was no desire,” Macker told the News&Guide. “I aim not to put anything on the agenda that’s a surprise for our board.”
The commission has largely avoided weighing in on divisive issues throughout the global pandemic.
It did not, for example, make any public statement on the stay-at-home orders Riddell and the town of Jackson pursued earlier in the cycle of the disease.
That’s in part because the town and county’s statutory authority is different. While the town can pass enforceable municipal code, the county cannot.
“The Town Council has the authority to move forward on a resolution and turn it into an enforceable ordinance,” Macker said. “The county commission does not have that.”
Authority over health matters primarily rests with Riddell. County commissioners appoint the district health officer, a position first vetted by the county board of health. After that the health officer functions as a local arm of the state and has the power to promulgate enforceable health policies, like the county’s version of a stay-at-home order issued in April.
“The Legislature’s goal was to remove the day-to-day passion of politics out of health decisions, and I think that’s prescient in this case,” Commissioner Luther Propst said. “These decisions should be made on health matters, not the outspokenness of members of the public.”
In this case the health officer asked commissioners to support his decision. Since the commission did not vote on that request, the News&Guide called commissioners individually to ask where they would have fallen. Unlike the Town Council, which voted unanimously in favor of both a resolution and, later, a binding mask ordinance, the county is split.
Macker, Propst and Commissioner Mark Newcomb said they would generally support a mask ordinance. Commissioners Greg Epstein and Mark Barron are against the idea.
The mask issue morphs
The mask issue has been escalating for weeks.
Health officials said in May they viewed widespread mask wearing as essential to reopening and as a tool primarily intended to protect those without COVID-19 from those infected with the disease. Wyoming Republican Rep. Liz Cheney even weighed in a few days before the Fourth of July holiday, tweeting a picture of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, wearing a mask.
“Dick Cheney says WEAR A MASK,” she tweeted, with the hashtag #realmenwearmasks.
But as the conversation has shifted from encouraging mask wearing though recommendations to compulsory orders, it’s become political. Mirroring national trends, a vocal group of Teton County residents are decrying mask orders as infringements on civil liberties.
Riddell nevertheless forged ahead last week, asking State Health Officer Alexia Harrist to support a rule requiring masks countywide. Her signature is needed to make such an order law.
But before Riddell submitted his order to the state, he asked town and county officials’ to show their support through nonbinding resolutions. He was following guidance from the state.
Kim Deti, the Wyoming Department of Health’s public information officer, said the department is advising health officers to communicate with local elected officials before applying for orders.
“Support there is important,” Deti wrote in an email.
The Jackson Town Council acted quickly on Riddell’s request, passing a resolution June 29. When the state did not approve the countywide order before the Fourth of July the town acted again, passing an enforceable order requiring masks to be worn with some exceptions in limited locations within town limits.
As of Tuesday the county had not weighed in formally.
Riddell’s order is still being reviewed.
Commissioners are split
In interviews, commissioners discussed why they hadn’t voted on the resolution.
“I am generally in support,” Macker told the News&Guide. “We should deploy all the tools we possibly can to keep our community as functioning as possible.”
When commissioners talked about the mask resolution the Monday after Riddell requested it, they deferred to the Teton County Board of Health. A majority of the commission never lined up behind voting on a resolution, so Macker, who sets agendas, didn’t slate it for a later meeting.
She pointed to the politics of the issue.
“It’s making a political statement about something that’s a health issue when … we don’t have the authority to do anything about it,” she said.
Barron is generally against a mask order because of enforcement problems. He said he didn’t see how a blanket mask order would be enforced and would prefer to see mask wearing in businesses enforced similarly to the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” credo.
If a customer doesn’t respect a request to wear a mask, Barron said they can be “invited out.”
“If they don’t leave,” he said, “you have reason to call 911 because it’s a trespass.”
Epstein felt similarly.
“To make a resolution that is symbolic at best with no teeth,” he said, “especially with something that’s starting to infringe on personal rights … I didn’t think it was a good idea.”
Even Propst, who said he would support an order and a resolution in support of seeking one, took some issue with non-binding resolutions as a whole.
“I see it more about expressing my support for the process and my confidence for the process than I see it as a de novo review of [Riddell’s] conclusion,” Propst said. “I talked with Dr. Riddell, I’ve asked him about what type of research he’s done, and I’m confident in his judgment.”
Commissioner Newcomb was firmly in support of the idea.
“I don’t believe it’s an overreach of government so long as the order is limited,” he said. “I think it’s a very reasonable safeguard against a higher level of spread and the potential for having to shut down the economy again.”
Though he recognized that voting on a resolution would have been largely symbolic, Newcomb said voting on the order “would’ve been a show of support for [Riddell] and small business owners who have been frustrated by having to be their own bouncers.”