Park County residents are now required to wear masks when in many public settings, including while inside businesses and government buildings.
Wednesday’s new public health order has the effect of law — with violations theoretically punishable as misdemeanor crimes — but law enforcement officials say they’re going to focus on education and voluntary compliance.
“No one is looking for people to come into your business and haul you away and put you in jail because you’re not wearing a mask,” Park County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin said Tuesday. “But we’re counting on this being a shot between the eyes for the people of Park County to say, ‘I guess this is serious. We’d better wear our masks, too,’ and that’s what we’re counting on.”
Billin described the additional restrictions as being needed to slow a pandemic that is not only making people sick, but straining hospitals in Powell, Cody and elsewhere.
“We’re now approaching a dire situation both in Park County and in Wyoming,” he told county commissioners.
Both he and Park County Public Health Nurse Manager Bill Crampton also said they believed that, if counties didn’t take action, the state government might take more drastic measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“Either we go along with his mask requirement here in Park County, or we may have businesses shut down again,” Crampton said. “Which way do you want to go?”
Places like Montana and Colorado have continued to experience surges in COVID-19 cases despite masking requirements — and facial coverings are just one precaution being urged, along with keeping at least 6 feet away from non-household members whenever possible, frequent hand washing, staying home when sick and avoiding gatherings. However, Park County public health officials say states and counties with mask mandates have seen better results and that the best research available indicates face coverings can significantly reduce transmission of COVID-19.
Although health officials consulted with commissioners and others before requesting the mandate from state officials, it was ultimately Billin’s decision to make the request.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioner Lee Livingston questioned whether it was the right approach. While agreeing with the end goal of getting more people to wear facial coverings, “I’m just not sure it’s going to work,” Livingston said of the mandate.
He suggested that stronger educational messaging might be a better approach and asked, “if it’s not going to be enforced, then why are we doing it?”
However, the other three commissioners present at the meeting backed the decision.
Commissioner Jake Fulkerson said the fact that the order likely will not be enforced made him particularly supportive.
“We talk about supporting the health care workers and you put a happy face on Facebook or you buy them a cup of coffee,” Fulkerson said. “Well, let’s really support them and put this in place ...”
Commissioner Lloyd Thiel added later that, “I really don’t see that this is going to really harm anybody.”
“It will maybe bring a little bit more attention [and] if we get a few more people to go that extra mile, I support it,” Thiel said of the mandate.
Speaking as someone who has had to seek critical hospital care within the last month, Commissioner Dossie Overfield added that it’s important for local residents to know “that you could be in [medical] trouble and not have help.”
While there’s been a focus on the number of people sick or hospitalized with COVID-19 — as of Wednesday there were eight patients hospitalized in Park County — Billin said the impacts are broader. Cody Regional Health has had to intermittently close its catheterization laboratory during the pandemic, he said, due to staff testing positive or being exposed to the virus. “So there’s been times we can’t take care of heart attack patients [in the county],” he said.
Some Cody hospital employees have been allowed to continue working even though a member of their household is infected, Billin said, “because without them working ... the hospital can’t run.”
Meanwhile, unless they are high-priority patients — such as those with strokes, heart attacks or trauma — “we can’t send patients very easily to Billings,” as hospitals there are dealing with capacity issues, Billin said.
Hospitals normally only transfer patients to larger facilities for care, but he said Cody Regional Health made the rare move of transferring one of its COVID-19 patients to Powell Valley Healthcare on Monday, while Billings Clinic recently transferred a “seriously ill” patient to the much smaller North Big Horn Hospital in Lovell.
“If these are the things we’re being forced to do, we know this is getting serious,” said Billin, who works as an emergency room doctor at PVHC. “We are now taking care of patients that normally we wouldn’t feel comfortable taking care of.”
Tuesday’s commission meeting was itself different due to the virus. It was held exclusively online because Commission Chairman Joe Tilden fell ill with COVID-19 following last week’s meeting; the other four commissioners are voluntarily self-quarantining due to their potential exposure at the Nov. 10 gathering.
During the discussion, Thiel did push back on an earlier suggestion from Billin that Park County residents have not been responsible during the pandemic.
“Granted, you’re going to have some people, whether it’s a mandate, or even an enforceable one, that are going to bow their head and not do things,” he said. “But the majority of Park County has really tried.”
Enforcement of the order rests not with public health officials, but with police. And in a joint statement, Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt, Park County Sheriff Scott Steward and Cody Police Chief Chuck Baker said their enforcement philosophy “will continue to be ongoing education efforts and to seek voluntary compliance.”
They said their officers “will continue to respond and investigate calls for service from business owners who report disputes or disturbances related to the face mask requirement” while “law enforcement will only take the appropriate enforcement action if necessary.”
“Let’s keep our businesses open and support them by wearing a mask,” Steward, Baker and Eckerdt added.
In an email, Park County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Skoric noted that law enforcement officers can issue citations or refer reports to his office for prosecution.
“In the unlikely event we would receive an investigative report on a matter like this, it would be treated like any other case we receive,” Skoric said.
However, despite some mask mandates having been in place for weeks — Teton County has had such a rule in place since July — Skoric said he doesn’t believe there have been any prosecutions for violations of those orders.
He added that, “I presume most people will comply whether they agree with it or not.”
Park County is one of 14 Wyoming counties with mask mandates in place or pending state approval. Natrona, Sweetwater, Sheridan, Park, Lincoln, Goshen, Sublette, Hot Springs and Carbon, Teton, Laramie and Albany counties and the Wind River Indian Reservation all had orders in place as of late Tuesday afternoon, said Kim Deti of the Department of Health, while additional orders were pending for Washakie and Converse counties.
State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist signed off on the “order requiring all adults within Park County, Wyoming, to wear face coverings in certain places open to the public, with exceptions” on Tuesday. Billin sought to have the mandate run through the holiday season and into early January, but for now, Harrist has only allowed the order to run through Dec. 4.
“Keep in mind that everything we do is temporary,” Billin said, adding that, “a vaccine is on the horizon.”