EVANSTON — With an eye to a gradual and phased reopening of Wyoming businesses, Gov. Mark Gordon on Thursday unveiled the framework of a plan to ease restrictions contained within public health orders issued in recent weeks. Gordon said a balanced approach will be utilized “driven by two guiding principles — public safety and helping more people get back to work.” Gordon and State Health Officer Alexia Harrist will be issuing modified public health orders prior to the expiration of current health orders on April 30, which will allow county health officers to submit requests for countywide variances from those orders “if public health conditions in the county warrant the change.”
Six health measures will be utilized, including the number of new cases, the percent of cases attributed to community spread, the percent of all conducted tests that are positive, the total number of admissions reported by hospitals, the total hospital bed availability and the total ICU bed availability. Each of these metrics will be classified as either improving, stabilizing or concerning when determining what level of restrictions should be placed on each county.
Gordon said some businesses will likely be allowed to reopen after April 30, provided they are including new safety procedures, including barbershops, cosmetologists and gyms. Gordon said plans are continuing to be refined related to the eventual reopening of restaurants and bars. Harrist said new orders issued next week will be in effect until May 15.
Gordon repeatedly stressed lifting restrictions will be a slow and methodical process and said decisions will be focused on data and progress rather than arbitrary dates. He said he has been in constant contact and coordinating with the governors of surrounding states.
“Here in Wyoming we know that if you put your garden in before the last frost, you could lose your entire garden, and that is why we are being as careful as we are, to make sure that we make constant steady progress, that we avoid any chance of resurgence, and that we open businesses … as quickly as we can and as safely as we can,” said Gordon.
When asked about school closures, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said all schools will need to submit a reopening plan to the state which may include a very limited reopening for special populations; however, all indications are schools will remain closed until fall. Balow said even when schools do reopen, “it doesn’t mean we’re going back to normal,” and indicated there will be special requirements in place whenever schools do reopen.
Gordon’s announcement comes as more grim news related to the COVID-19 pandemic has been released. The Wyoming Department of Health announced five more deaths around the state in recent days, bringing the state’s total death toll to seven. The new fatalities included four members of the Northern Arapaho Indian Tribe, whose deaths were announced late on Monday, April 20, and an older man who had been hospitalized in Teton County whose death was announced on Wednesday, April 22.
As of the afternoon of Thursday, April 23, there were 326 lab-confirmed cases in Wyoming, with another 121 probable cases. A probable case refers to an individual with known COVID-19 exposure who then goes on to develop symptoms and is presumed to be positive. Of the nearly 450 confirmed cases, 275 were listed as recovered. The WDH website reported 7,567 tests had been conducted in the state, with only 190 of those out of Uinta County.
Due to testing shortages and restrictions, not everyone with symptoms has been tested, although the Wyoming Public Health Lab announced Thursday it had acquired enough testing supplies to now begin testing everyone with COVID-19 symptoms. The expanded testing is to detect the active presence of the virus, not antibody testing to determine who may have previously been infected. Increased testing capacity is vital in helping determine the extent of disease, which helps guide decisions on maintaining closures or beginning to lift restrictions.
The possibility of lifting restrictions has become a hot topic in recent days, as protesters in many states, including Wyoming, have descended on government buildings demanding reopening of vast sectors of the economy. Nearly 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past four weeks.
The Wyoming Department of Workforce Services has announced the expanded unemployment insurance options contained within the recently passed CARES Act will be available beginning the week of April 27. As part of that legislation, individuals who would not previously have qualified for unemployment payments, such as the self-employed, independent contractors, and gig workers, are eligible. In addition, the legislation provides for an additional $600 per week in payments and extends the eligibility period for an additional 13 weeks beyond when eligibility would have previously been exhausted.
For small business owners hoping for relief, the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funds contained within the CARES Act have been exhausted. However, Congress is reportedly nearing a deal to replenish that fund with billions of dollars. Locally, the Evanston Chamber of Commerce and Uinta County Commissioner Mark Anderson are offering services to help small businesses navigate the process of seeking relief and applying for grants and loans. Individuals are encouraged to reach out for assistance.
Although the economic impacts are staggering, a recent analysis released by University of Wyoming economists says the benefits of social distancing measures still outweigh the costs by a whopping $5.2 trillion. That analysis utilizes a measure of human life at a value of $10 million, which is a common value used by economists and the U.S. government. That report concludes the social distancing measures are likely justified, “given that no good contingency plans were in place for an epidemic of this magnitude.”
During a video conference update on Friday, April 17, Uinta County Public Health Nurse manager provided important information on many different facets of the county response to the pandemic. Proffit said the county is still actively working on issues related to transportation and housing. County employees are in the process of adding protective barrier equipment to some county vehicles to provide an option for transporting people in need to and from testing or to quarantine areas, etc., without resorting to using an ambulance.
In addition, Proffit said they are working on setting up housing options for people who may need to quarantine or isolate themselves away from other household members and for those who are homeless.
Proffit said she is regularly asked if the county has reached a peak in cases yet, which is very difficult to predict. However, she said most models predict the state is still a couple of weeks, at least, away from reaching a peak — models that are supported by the recent fatalities.
Public health staff are also acquiring PPE (personal protective equipment) for healthcare workers and first responders and received a shipment from the state on Thursday, April 16, for distribution to local agencies. Proffit said the masks being made and donated by individuals throughout the county, both cloth and 3D printed, are valuable and needed, and she encouraged folks to continue making them.
“Our community is exceptional in our desire to help each other,” said Proffit, when speaking of the numerous community-driven volunteer efforts that have sprung up in recent weeks. She did request, however, that people involved in volunteering please contact public health so their office is aware of, and can guide people to, resources available.
In addition, Uinta County Emergency Management Coordinator Kim West said volunteer hours and costs can be used to help the county meet matches required for county grants. Such grants regularly have requirements that counties match up to 25% of funds being received. West said volunteer hours can be counted at up to $21.50 per hour, meaning all the hours people are spending delivering meals, coordinating food drives, sewing masks and more can all help the county meet those requirements and receive grant assistance.
Finally, Proffit urged people to be careful due to a number of scams currently occurring in the county. Some people have reported receiving text messages or even phone calls telling them they have been exposed to COVID-19. Proffit said people should never provide identifying information or respond to calls that do not come directly from a real person at public health calling from a Uinta County landline phone number.