Public health restrictions to ease as numbers improve and Republicans push back

Posted 3/9/21

Starting next week, Wyomingites will no longer be required to wear masks in most public places and — for the first time in nearly a year — bars, restaurants and theaters will be allowed …

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Public health restrictions to ease as numbers improve and Republicans push back

Posted

Starting next week, Wyomingites will no longer be required to wear masks in most public places and — for the first time in nearly a year — bars, restaurants and theaters will be allowed to return to normal operations. The changes will take effect Tuesday, March 16.

Gov. Mark Gordon announced the changes Monday, attributing his decision to “continually improving” numbers related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I thank the people of Wyoming for their commitment to keeping one another safe throughout this pandemic. It is through their efforts that we have kept our schools and businesses operating and our economy moving forward,” Gordon said.

He also asked residents “to continue to take personal responsibility for their actions and stay diligent.”

Gordon said more details about the changes to the public health orders would be released later this week. His office specifically mentioned that face covering protocols will remain in place in K-12 schools “as a safety measure to ensure that classroom learning and all student activities can continue to occur safely.”

The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Wyoming facilities has fallen from a peak of  247 patients on Nov. 30 to 22 by the end of last week; meanwhile, the number of active COVID-19 infections has sunk from a peak of 11,861 cases in late November to 460 as of Friday. There’s been a similar downward trend at the local level.

Park County Health Officer Dr. Aaron Billin had thought it might be a few more weeks before the mask mandate went away. However, he called the decision to lift the restrictions across the state next week “appropriate” and said it’s supported by data.

“Things are looking very good,” Billin said Monday.

    

Public pushback

Beyond the improved metrics, elected and public health officials have been facing a renewed pushback against the health orders. Late last month, for example, a group of citizens filed a class action lawsuit in Johnson County that seeks to have all the orders voided.

Additionally, at a meeting in Cody last week, members of the Park County Republican Party’s Central Committee called on county commissioners to push back on the mask mandate. A couple committee members contended that Billin should be removed from his position, particularly if he didn’t request a variance to the masking rule. Billin — who’s described facial coverings as effective and cheap while generally not hindering businesses — had expressed concern last week about backing off the restrictions too quickly and triggering a surge in COVID-19 cases.

However, the Park County Republican Party opposed the mask requirements from the time they first went into place in November. Republican Precinct Committeeman Tim Lasseter of Cody argued Thursday that the current numbers did not support the restrictions.

“Why have our commissioners, that represent us, let an unelected bureaucrat have that much power in the county and basically endorsed it in supporting him?” Lasseter asked the two county commissioners present at the meeting, Lloyd Thiel and Dossie Overfield.

“There are power-hungry dictators with an MD behind their name that need to be fired — or executed. I’m good with either one,” Committeeman Troy Bray of Powell added later, to laughter and some murmuring from the dozens of Republicans present. After another committeeman questioned the propriety of the comment, Park County Republican Party Chairman Martin Kimmet gestured to Bray to tone it down.

During the back and forth discussion, Commissioner Thiel told the group that he would be willing to vote to relieve Dr. Billin of his duties and that he personally does not support the health officer; Thiel said mask-wearing should be a personal choice and that he’s “over” the pandemic, noting the restrictions were initially framed as short-term measures.

However, “I would actually like to not take it to that extreme” of removing Billin from his post, Thiel said. “I would like us to request a variance.”

The commissioner added that he believes Billin is trying to do what he thinks is best. 

“In his defense, he’s thinking of it from his own medical background,” Thiel said of the doctor. “But ... I believe there’s mental issues, social issues that he’s not taking into account.

“That’s my opinion as well; I’m not a doctor,” Thiel qualified. “But I think that we should, as elected officials, listen to you people and request a variance.”

Gov. Gordon effectively ended that debate Monday with his announcement the mandate is about to be repealed. Thiel had also suggested he would be the only member of the county board to vote to remove the health officer. 

Commissioner Overfield said she supports Dr. Billin, who generally answers to State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist; Overfield noted that Billin previously requested a couple of variances at the commission’s request.

“He believes that he is following the science and the reports that he sees,” Overfield said. “Whether you all agree with those or not, I have no idea, but I have appreciated how Dr. Billin has communicated with us, tried to keep us updated.”

    

Rights versus restrictions

Billin put a facial covering requirement in place at the county level in late November. Commissioners generally supported the order at the time, but the Park County Republican Party passed a resolution blasting the requirement as “unacceptable, outrageous and most importantly unconstitutional,” calling for it to be rescinded or nullified. 

In a Monday interview, Billin said that, outside of sending that resolution, the leaders of the local Republican Party have not contacted him with concerns or suggestions.

“This is all about politics,” he said, adding, “I’m sure there’s politics in Cheyenne that affect things, too, but hopefully it can be minimized.”

Billin said his goal is to try to give out accurate information and to “react based upon data, good data, rather than emotion and politics.”

Speaking to Republicans on Thursday night, Commissioner Overfield told the group that, “I understand how you all feel, and I did hear from some of you” when the mask mandate went into effect last year.

“I also heard from more people that were happy about the mandate,” she said. “I don’t know what to tell you about that, except for, they’re all my constituents. So we listen to everything that we’re hearing and try to get done what we can.”

Precinct Committeeman Bob Berry then disputed the idea that the health orders should be guided by how many people weigh in on one side or the other.

“We do not live in a democracy. We live in a country of laws; it’s called a constitution,” Berry said. Wyoming law is being placed above the state constitution, he said, and “it seems to me that this organization should let the Constitution trump the statute.”

The remark drew applause from the group.

As the group discussed the issue, Thiel rhetorically asked what would happen if Dr. Billin was to be removed as county health officer.

“We can fire them,” he said, “but does anybody in this room want to raise their hand to be the next public health officer?”

A half-dozen Republican committee members put up their hands. State law, however, requires that the position be filled by a medical doctor.

The state’s current mask mandate and other current public health orders — which includes the limitations on bars and restaurants — are set to run through Monday, March 15.

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