Masks are now required in Teton County, the result of a long-sought countywide mask order the state approved as COVID-19 makes its return to the valley. The order includes some exceptions.
State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist signed the order Monday, hours after the Teton County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a resolution that supported mask wearing and, more specifically, Teton District Health Officer Travis Riddell’s bid for a countywide mask order. Commissioners appoint Riddell, but he answers to Harrist, whose signature is required to make county health orders law.
Commission Chair Natalia D. Macker told the Jackson Hole Daily the fight to get people to wear masks, which have been proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19, isn’t over just because a countywide order with legal teeth is in place.
“It’s all just words on the page until people put masks on their face,” she said. “If you were not wearing a mask, please wear a mask.”
The order lasts through July 31 and defines a mask as “a covering made of cloth, fabric, or other soft or permeable material, without holes, that covers the nose and mouth and surrounding areas of the lower face.” Harrist’s signature means people in Teton County will be required to wear such face coverings inside of or in line for any retail or commercial business, when obtaining health care, and when using public transit or riding in a private, commercial vehicle like a tour bus.
People who have a physical or mental health reason not to wear masks are exempt from that rule and do not need to provide documentation for their condition. Ditto for people eating at restaurants and working out at gyms. Those under 18 are also exempt.
Businesses will have to post notices stating that face coverings are required, and employees, owners and volunteers at retail or commercial businesses will be required to wear masks.
The board of commissioners was the last governmental and quasi-governmental body in Teton County to make an official show of support for Riddell’s order.
State health officials have said local support is one factor they would consider when reviewing mask orders and other variances to statewide COVID-19 policies. Nearly three weeks ago, Riddell asked the commissioners and Jackson Town Council to vote on resolutions supporting his proposed order. The Town Council did so, following up with a municipal ordinance requiring masks before the Fourth of July weekend.
The board of commissioners does not have the same power — it can’t pass an enforceable mask ordinance for the county. That authority lies with Riddell, with Harrist’s approval.
After the Teton Village Association voted to support Riddell’s ask of the state (he did not explicitly ask for Teton Village’s support), county commissioners followed suit, scheduling Monday’s vote.
Riddell emailed Harrist after the vote to ask why it was taking her so long to approve his order. She quickly told him it was a go, provided he approved the final edits.
The order Harrist eventually signed is the third major iteration of the document after lawyers from the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office and the Teton County Attorney’s Office sent it back and forth several times to make edits.
The commissioners’ unanimous support for Riddell’s ask was by no means a foregone conclusion. Macker previously said she hadn’t called a vote on the issue because she didn’t see support for the resolution on the board. Commissioners Mark Barron and Greg Epstein told the Jackson Hole News&Guide about two weeks ago that they wouldn’t vote in favor of a resolution supporting an order they thought would be unenforceable.
After Barron proposed voting on a version of the resolution that wouldn’t have included language supporting Riddell’s ask of the state, Commissioners Luther Propst and Mark Newcomb came out swinging for baking that language into the document.
“I think it’s vital at this point that we express, with no doubt, that we are asking, in no uncertain terms, the order be approved,” Commissioner Mark Newcomb said.
Their side won out.
Barron and Epstein both voted for the resolution.
“I have been resistant to having any mandated rules regarding masks. I’m very much a supporter of wearing a mask, I practice that on a daily basis, and I support every business mandating what they’d like in their businesses,” Barron said. “I will support this just to move this along. But, I believe, the bottom line, whether it’s a recommendation or mandate — the county commission doesn’t have the power to create laws regarding masks.”
Riddell’s Monday morning entreaty to Harrist came as Teton County’s COVID-19 numbers have skyrocketed. As of Monday afternoon, the county had 66 active cases, a single-day record, and four people were in the St. John’s Health primary care unit due to complications from the coronavirus, according to Teton County’s COVID-19 database.
Of particular concern to Riddell was the daily incidence rate of new cases per 100,000 people, a metric that allows communities of different sizes to be compared. The Harvard Global Health Initiative reported that Teton County’s rate was 25.6 people per 100,000, the highest in the state. Riddell suggested in his email to Harrist that number could presage economic decline.
“Our incidence is at or approaching that of other states and counties nationally which have reinstituted business closures due to COVID-19 resurgence,” he wrote.