Health officials order closure of businesses, prohibit gatherings of 10 or more people

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Effective immediately and continuing for the next 14 days, Park County’s bars, day cares, gyms, fitness centers, employee cafeterias, museums and golf clubs must close, restaurants can no longer offer dine-in service, and local residents are prohibited from gathering in groups of 10 or more, health officials declared Thursday morning.

The new public health order is aimed at curbing the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19. People “just need to do the right thing,” Dr. Aaron Billin, the county’s health officer, said Thursday. 

The new restrictions on gatherings and certain businesses are intended “to help prevent initial exposure and secondary transmission to our most vulnerable populations,” Billin wrote in a public notice. “These measures are especially important for people over 60 years old and those with chronic health conditions due to higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”

COVID-19 was confirmed to be in Park County on Tuesday night, as a Cody Regional Health employee tested positive for the respiratory disease. Billin said Thursday that he’d talked with a couple doctors at Cody Regional Health, “who feel that the whole hospital has been exposed at this point; we just haven’t had the positive cases yet.” A Cody Regional Health spokeswoman said Wednesday that the organization was working with local and state officials and "taking measures to ensure continued employee and patient safety."

A total 18 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in Wyoming as of Thursday, but health officials believe there are more cases, because testing is limited and the disease's symptoms can be similiar to the common cold or flu. Billin told Park County commissioners and other officials gathered for a Thursday morning meeting that, “the rest of us are all going to get it [COVID-19] if we don't already have it."

“My point is, practice social distancing, wash your hands, keep distance from each other,” Billin told those in the commission meeting room inside the courthouse. “I bet you three-quarters of us in the room already have it.”

Most people who become infected with COVID-19 suffer a relatively mild illness and recover on their own. However, up to 20% of patients may require hospitalization — and it can prove deadly to a small percentage of the population. Symptoms of the new coronavirus include fever, cough and shortness of breath, showing up two to 14 days after a person is exposed, the CDC says. People can transmit the disease before showing symptoms.

Thursday's Park County public health order prohbits gatherings of 10 or more people for “social, spiritual, and recreational activities including, but not limited to, community, civic, public, leisure, faith based, or sporting events; parades, concerts, festivals, conventions, fundraisers, and similar activities.” Billin said that means businesses should not have more than 10 people on their premises.

“[A] business may only have 10 people at 1 location at a time,” Billin said in an email. “The limit [of] 10 includes all people, employees or customers (unless they are specifically exempted).”

Businesses and entities exempted from the restrictions are “grocery stores and other stores selling essential items, Yellowstone Regional Airport, government facilities, pharmacies, hospitals or medical clinics,” the public notice says. Child care centers that are “caring exclusively for children of essential personnel” can also remain in operation.

Further, while restaurants are now barred from offering dine-in service, they can continue to offer take-out, drive-through or curbside service if they follow a number of conditions; those include discouraging customers from using cash — and using cleansing procedures whenever cash or credit cards are used — and encouraging payments by phone or online.

“Staff who handle cash or credit cards shall not be involved in the preparation, handling, or delivery of food,” the public notice says.

Managers are also required to ensure, “on a daily basis,” that no symptomatic employees are allowed to work.

Hotels can also continue to offer room service if they follow those restrictions.

Billin had asked Park County busineses to voluntarily adopt his recommendations on Wednesday, but they became binding after the health officer, Dr. Alexia Harrist, signed Billin's public health order Thursday morning.

On Thursday afternoon, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon endorsed a similar decision by Harrist to close all of the state's public spaces — a similar list of places that includes schools, bars, museums, etc. — through Friday, April 3. Most Wyoming school districts, including those in Powell and Cody, had already decided to follow the advice of Gordon and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and close until at least April 3, but some have remained open.

In anouncing the statewide order on Thursday, Gordon said he's “never been inclined to overstep local authority, but these are unprecedented times. It is critical that there is uniformity across the state in how social distancing measures are implemented.”

“Wyoming, like all Americans, must commit to reducing the strain on our healthcare system. These are hard measures and they will be difficult for employees and businesses alike, but they are warranted,” Gordon said.

He followed that up with a Friday order prohibiting gathers of 10 people or more within a single room or confined space, with some exemptions.

There is concern that, if COVID-19 spreads exponentially, hospitals will not have the beds or resources to treat the people that fall ill.

“We realize this action [closing public spaces] will be very difficult for many of our residents. But it is an important step to help them avoid becoming ill and to help them avoid spreading COVID-19 to those who are most vulnerable," Harrist said in a statement. “We should all work together to help keep our friends and neighbors safe.”

As for the Park County businesses that are being allowed to remain open, Billin asked them to “make an attempt to implement measures of social distancing” — including keeping patrons 6 feet away from each other.

Any workers who are sick or have had "very close contact" with someone with a known documented case of COVID-19 — that is, being within 6 feet of the infected person for 10-15 minutes or more — should be sent home, Billin said.

Park County commissioners were still adjusting to the new reality during their Thursday meeting. When they reached lunchtime, Commission Chairman Joe Tilden asked the board if they wanted to head to a restaurant.

“There’s no place to go,” Commissioner Dossie Overfield reminded the board with a laugh.

They ultimately ordered pizza.

In addition to the restrictions, Dr. Billin also asked that residents continue to do these things:

1. Stay at home when you are sick.

2. Wash hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds OR use alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

3. Cover mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing (do not use bare hand).

4. When experiencing respiratory symptoms, call healthcare provider before going to clinic or emergency department. Because there is no treatment for COVID-19, go to the ER only when symptoms worsen to the point that you are likely to need admission to the hospital for supportive care (e.g. respiratory difficulty).

5. Avoid crowds and sick individuals.

6. Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.

7. Do not hoard supplies unnecessarily.

8. Entities providing essential food, vehicle fuel, electricity, natural gas, and communications should take steps to put their staff at low risk of infection and ensure uninterrupted delivery of these essential services.

9. Be aware of family, friends, and neighbors that need assistance. Maintain contact with them by phone. Prescriptions can be picked up, food can be delivered, and other assistance rendered with minimal contact.

(Editor's note: There is conflicting guidance as to the exact limit on gatherings. The public health order says it prohibits "gatherings of 10 people or more" -- indicating that no more than nine people can gather -- while the public notice composed by Dr. Billin says that "gatherings are limited to 10 people." Billin has stressed the spirit of the order -- that is, to promote social distancing.)

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