State puts new caps on gatherings

Republican Party leaders push for repeal of mask mandate

Posted 11/24/20

Across the state of Wyoming, large gatherings are again being prohibited as part of efforts to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Starting today (Tuesday), the number of people allowed …

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State puts new caps on gatherings

Republican Party leaders push for repeal of mask mandate


Across the state of Wyoming, large gatherings are again being prohibited as part of efforts to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Starting today (Tuesday), the number of people allowed to gather in one place — indoors and outdoors — is being significantly lowered.

Under the state government’s updated public health order, people generally are being required to take extra precautions if they’re gathering in a group of more than 25 people (down from 50). And even with those measures in place, attendance at indoor events is being capped at 100 participants (down from 250), with outdoor events limited to 250 people (down from 1,000). There are some exceptions, however, including for churches and funerals.

Gov. Mark Gordon’s office described the new measures as a way to “ease the pressure on Wyoming’s healthcare system and preserve the viability of the state’s economy” as COVID-19-related hospitalizations around the state have risen.

“With this spike, we must respond to these new conditions. We have seen that larger gatherings are playing a role in the spread of this disease,” Gordon said.

On Friday, a new high of 235 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 at facilities across the state, though that figure dropped to 224 on Monday. During  November, the Wyoming Department of Health has confirmed 115 deaths related to COVID-19.

Park County saw a significant surge in cases and hospitalizations between October and early November, prompting officials at both Powell Valley Healthcare and Cody Regional Health to urge residents to heed public health precautions like social distancing and wearing facial coverings.

There are some signs that the spread has slowed in recent days: The number of cases reported in the prior 14 days dropped to its lowest level in roughly a month on Sunday, while the number of active confirmed or probable cases in the county dropped from 172 on Nov. 8 down to 107 on Nov. 16, according to County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin. Additionally, the number of patients hospitalized at Cody Regional Health and PVHC with COVID-19 sank from 10 on Nov. 11 down to four on Monday.

Meanwhile, new public health restrictions are taking effect.


Republican party objects

At Billin’s request, a mask mandate began Wednesday in Park County, requiring facial coverings in most businesses.

This week, Park County Republican Party’s executive committee called on Billin to immediately rescind the order. They accused the doctor and state officials of having made an “unconstitutional circumvention of our elected officials.” If Billin doesn’t withdraw the mandate, they urged county commissioners to “nullify this unconstitutional order, in haste, at their earliest opportunity.”

“We believe this mandate is unacceptable, outrageous, and most importantly unconstitutional in a Constitutional Representative Republic!” the party leaders wrote.

Billin, who was appointed by commissioners, answers to State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist and the Wyoming Department of Health. He told commissioners last week that the Wyoming Legislature intentionally set up the law so that public health orders are issued by medical professionals rather than elected officials.

“We are not beholden to a political party. We’re not beholden to our people who elected us,” Billin said, adding that he feels the process “is working the way it was intended.”

At the state level, the Wyoming Republican Party has similarly called on Gov. Gordon to revoke the state of emergency related to the pandemic, which would remove all of the public health restrictions.

Gordon announced the tighter restrictions on gatherings on Thursday, but declined to impose a statewide masking requirement. While much of the public debate has surrounded masks, public health officials and medical professionals have stressed masks are only one precaution — and facial coverings are believed to be more effective at preventing the wearer from spreading the novel coronavirus than protecting the wearer.


‘Nobody wants to go backwards’

Amid the rollout of new restrictions, numerous commenters on Billin’s Park County Wyoming Health Officer Facebook page questioned the efficacy of masks, disputed the seriousness of the pandemic and expressed frustration with continuing restrictions on everyday life.

“Gestapo!!” wrote Bobbie Colvin of Powell on a post announcing the new limits on gatherings, referring to the secret police of Nazi Germany.

The new caps effectively put Wyoming back to the restrictions that were in place in early June. Before it was clear what state officials would do, Billin told commissioners that “nobody wants to go backwards,” but said much more has been learned since the pandemic’s early days.

“I’m the first one to admit that, back in late March and April, we did too much. We did too much in Park County, we did too much in Wyoming, we did too much nationwide,” Billin said. He attributed the overreaction to COVID-19 being something no one had ever seen before, adding, “I’ve [since] said many times, I wish we saved something back then to do now.”

Under the state’s new rules, set to remain in place through at least Dec. 15, gatherings over 25 people must screen workers, keep attendees in groups of no more than eight and maintain 6 feet of distance between them (or have them wear facial coverings), thoroughly clean facilities, etc. Additionally, venues can only be filled to 25% capacity with no more than 100 people, and outdoor venues are limited to 50% capacity, up to 250.

A lengthy list of facilities remain exempted, including churches, funeral homes, livestock auctions, government facilities, grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, hospitals, treatment centers and businesses where people generally aren’t within 6 feet of each other. Parades are also exempt.

But the orders will severely cap attendance at high school athletic events.


‘It’s just a virus’

Billin and State Health Officer Harrist had been allowing up to 700 people inside the Powell High School gymnasium and 680 spectators at the Cody High School gym. Now, the schools can have no more than 100 fans present.

On one of Billin’s Facebook posts, Powell High School senior Madi Fields questioned why the limits on gatherings were needed if the required masks work so well.

“... Quite honestly I’m just trying to have a basketball season. We need to quit being scared of this virus,” she wrote, “it’s just a virus we will all be okay in the end. Lets get life back to normal!”

“So far there is 176 Wyoming residents and their families that will not be okay,” Billin responded.

Fields’ father, Jason, disagreed, questioning whether the people would have died regardless of COVID-19.

“You know as well as everyone else that death is the only way we are getting outta this world. If you look just in our local paper there are at least 3-4 obituaries each week. Not from Covid,” he wrote to Billin.

Responded the health officer, “Just because we are all going to die in the end doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t intervene in preventable deaths.”

Most people who become infected suffer mild or moderate flu-like symptoms and recover at home. The elderly and those with underlying health conditions are the most vulnerable to becoming seriously ill, health officials say.

As of Monday, the Wyoming Department of Health said COVID-19 had either caused or contributed to the deaths of 202 Wyoming residents among more than 29,400 confirmed and probable cases documented since March.