Orders eased as legislature prepares for special session

Gov. Mark Gordon speaks during a news conference on Wednesday. Gordon used the news conference to formally announce that the rules forcing the closure of some businesses since March to halt the spread of coronavirus will be relaxed on Friday. The move will allow the state’s restaurants and bars to open if they follow certain safety guidelines. (OFFICE OF GOV. MARK GORDON/Michael Pearlman)

EVANSTON — As the Wyoming Legislature prepares to convene in a special session on Friday-Saturday, May 15-16, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon announced additional easing of restrictions issued due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The new modified health orders strongly resemble those already in place in Uinta County after a countywide variance was approved last week.

Restaurants, bars, movie theaters, gyms, salons and more will be able to continue operating with social distancing and additional cleaning and sanitation practices in place. A slight difference in the new health orders, which will remain in place through the end of May, is that public gatherings will now be able to include up to 25 individuals rather than the 20 included in the county variance.

Gordon announced the changes during an update on the COVID situation held on Wednesday, May 13. At that time, Gordon also announced the planned phased reopening of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks beginning on Monday, May 18. At that time only the southern and eastern entrances to the park will be open as the park entrances from Montana will remain closed. Visitor centers, restaurants and lodges within both parks will remain closed as well. Gordon said he had been working closely with the superintendents of both parks to develop the phased reopening plan to begin to “reawaken” the state’s significant tourism economy.

Other changes recently announced include the ability of hospitals to resume conducting elective procedures, which Evanston Regional Hospital has announced it will begin, using a phased approach. Hospital CEO Cheri Willard said the reactivation plan includes the hospital and all clinics and will include COVID-19 testing for all patients with planned procedures. Willard also emphasized the importance of continuing to seek regular medical care during the pandemic, noting reports that people are foregoing visiting healthcare providers, even for emergent conditions, due to concerns about contracting the disease.

During the Wednesday press conference, Gov. Gordon addressed the looming legislative special session and said he is hoping for a straightforward session that addresses the immediate needs of Wyoming individuals and businesses that have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. He further announced he has already authorized the distribution of $17 million in federal CARES Act funding to address public health needs, including $15 million to the Wyoming Department of Health to increase testing and contact tracing capabilities and an additional $2 million to the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security to assist in purchasing personal protective equipment for distribution to non-healthcare-related entities to support public safety with the new health orders that require the use of masks and increased cleaning measures.

Though the restrictions are easing, Gordon urged employers to continue to allow employees to work from home whenever possible and urged Wyoming citizens to continue to abide by public health recommendations to reduce the spread of illness. He stressed the threat is not over and that the virus is still present and still capable of “wreaking havoc” if individuals do not heed the recommendations.

“Additional loosenings come with additional risk,” said Gordon, “and that risk is something that every Wyoming citizen is going to have to pay attention to… We want to make sure that we are emphasizing safety with all the things that we’ve talked about right from the start, social distancing, keeping our hands clean, etc. This is truly an exciting time for Wyoming, but it’s also one that is a cautionary time for Wyoming. This is not a ‘hold my beer’ moment. This is a ‘let’s do this carefully and make sure we don’t lose the ground we’ve gained.’”

Gordon pushed back on claims the statewide health orders issued throughout the pandemic were government overreach, saying they were lawful and enforceable, and reminding people he had never issued shelter-in-place orders, had never closed retail stores, etc. He also expressed disappointment with those choosing not to abide by health recommendations, saying with rights come responsibilities.

“Just a personal note on this, I think it is incredibly selfish of individuals to place others at risk... Just do the right thing. It’s disappointing to me personally when people — when you give them those choices to be able to make — that they take that on themselves so selfishly and don’t regard the health and safety of others.”

State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist also emphasized the importance of following guidance to reduce the spread of disease and said it’s entirely possible for more restrictive orders to again be issued should cases begin to surge in any particular county or statewide. In her comments, Harrist also announced a very limited supply of remdesivir, the antiviral drug that has shown some promise in treating COVID illness, has been received in the state for use in severely-ill hospitalized patients only.

Both Harrist and Gordon acknowledged some people have insisted the orders have gone too far, but said, as is often the case with public health orders, it’s difficult to know if they were an overreaction but it would be very clear if they were an underreaction.

“They seem to have worked,” said Gordon, “and I’m happy to be criticized that we don’t have excess deaths. I’m happy to be criticized that we did things just about right. I’m very sad that the country generally speaking has undergone the challenges it has economically because those have affected our ag industry, they’ve affected our energy industry, and they’ve affected our tourism industry.”

Gordon continued by saying his approach has been to emphasize personal responsibility over orders and he is hopeful people will continue to take the threat seriously. “We’ve got to be mindful of what this could bring,” he said, while pointing out that Wyoming’s population is generally a bit older and therefore potentially at greater risk of severe illness. He did acknowledge, however, the burden the cleaning and safety requirements can put on small businesses and said the state is trying to assist businesses with protective equipment, etc.

“I am anxious today,” said Gordon. “I’m very anxious because we are loosening substantially many of the requirements we had in place. We’re doing that in a way that we believe is safe, and yet I stand before you today knowing that our citizens are at greater risk today ... than they were. That’s not easy. For those that are saying we should loosen everything and do away with it, they don’t have the responsibility that I do to make sure that our citizens are well taken care of, or that Dr. Harrist does.”

In closing his remarks, Gordon said, “I believe in the people of Wyoming. I believe we will do the right thing, do it right away, and we will do it the right way.”

As of press time, the Wyoming Department of Health website lists 523 laboratory confirmed cases of COVID-19, with another 165 probable cases, 10 patients currently hospitalized and seven fatalities. Uinta County has had seven confirmed cases with two probable; eight of those cases are listed as recovered. The seventh confirmed case in the county was announced on Friday, May 8, in an adult male in the Bridger Valley area. The Wyoming Department of Health has emphasized viral testing is available for all Wyoming residents with COVID-19 symptoms.

The Wyoming Air National Guard will be honoring healthcare providers throughout the state on Friday, May 15, with flyovers of healthcare facilities. The Evanston flyovers will take place over both ERH and the Wyoming State Hospital 1:15 p.m.

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