The Laramie City Council failed to pass a resolution Tuesday endorsing a mask mandate, but that doesn’t mean it’s off the table for Albany County and state officials.
Council’s resolution requesting that the county health officer work with the state to implement a mask order for most public spaces with some exceptions would itself not have implemented any policy. The decision to request a variance on state health orders from Wyoming health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist would have to come from Albany County health officer officer Jean Allais, who was in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting along with Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent.
Trent said Wednesday that council’s 5-4 vote to kill the resolution doesn’t mean conversations about working with the state on a mask mandate at the county level will stop.
“This was just the city requesting respectfully that we review it, and we were already reviewing it with them,” Trent said. “We will continue to meet and continue that dialogue.”
Vice Mayor Pat Gabriel, Councilman Charles McKinney, Mayor Joe Shumway, Councilman Bryan Shuster and Councilwoman Jessica Stalder voted against the resolution.
The decision from council not to endorse a mask mandate doesn’t even make it less likely the county will go forward with requesting a variance from the state to implement an order, Trent said. While council’s vote up or down didn’t make a definitive difference on the county’s decision, Trent said it was helpful to hear from the public on both sides of the issue.
“What I got from the public comments is that there’s a need to educate,” Trent said. “Once education steps in, there may be a need for an order, but right now, we can’t even get to that stage.”
Harrist said during a Wednesday press conference that local government input was a factor in public health order decision-making, but it wasn’t the sole determinant.
“Certainly local support for public health actions is important and does factor into decisions but so do other things, (such as) public health necessity, the outbreak metric, public health data indicating a need,” Harrist said.
Gov. Mark Gordon said he’s not inclined to implement a statewide mask order, but that local options remain on the table.
While Gordon said Wyoming was fortunate to be among the states least affected by COVID-19, he said the hospitalization rate and the number of new cases ticking up were matters for concern.
The concerns of council-members voting against the resolution varied. While most said they supported wearing masks in public, several said they either didn’t think a mandate would be effective or that they needed more information on enforcement.
Stalder said she supported the wearing of masks and wanted to see the city educating the public about wearing masks. In her view, however, Stalder said requiring masks would not achieve the desired outcome.
“I believe we need to support businesses with enforcement if they want that, and stay out of their businesses if they don’t,” she said. “There are so many citizens in this town who will not wear masks. We heard it in our email and we heard it tonight. If we pass a resolution, they’re going to find a loophole or exception and we will not have achieved our goal.”
Shuster also said he didn’t think an order would be effective in decreasing the risk of spread of COVID-19 as people’s choices in private settings would make the mandate a moot point.
“I think it would be great if we could say we guarantee that everyone will wear a mask for six weeks and we’ll be done, but the biggest thing I’ve heard is that half our cases in Laramie came from private parties,” Shuster said. “So our thing here is not going to go into private houses .... and not to pick on the University of Wyoming, but that’s our biggest influx of people — how many parties are going to require masks?”
In his decision to vote against the resolution, Gabriel said he thought it was “interesting” the notion of implementing an order came from a city council member rather than the county health officer. But Councilman Paul Weaver, who spearheaded the resolution, said his initiative came from the urging of constituents who wanted to see a mask mandate in Laramie. That, Weaver argued, was an appropriate response as an elected official.
Just before Tuesday’s vote in anticipation the resolution would fail, Weaver tried to reassure his constituents who called for an order.
“For those of you who asked the council, we have certainly used our process to attempt to further your request on your behalf,” Weaver said. “Where it goes from here, it’s up to the individual citizens. The future decisions and the future course of this pandemic, we’ll hope for the best.”
The Laramie Human Rights Network, the grassroots organization that has led protests against police violence and racism, organized a march on Wednesday in support of a local mask order, emphasizing a call for Laramie Police Department officers to wear masks while on duty.
Wednesday’s march followed a protest Tuesday at City Hall just before the council meeting where dozens gathered with American flags to chants of “U.S.A.” as a show of opposition to any mask order.
Albany County resident and former gubernatorial candidate Taylor Haynes was among the crowd. He said such an order would be unconstitutional.
“We are here to let elected officials know we intend to be free, we are responsible and we are Americans,” Haynes said. “We want to exercise our First Amendment right to freely gather, we thank them for their service, and we ask them to defend and uphold the Constitution, that’s their job. Their job is not to protect me from the virus.”
Wyoming set its record highest single-day increase of COVID-19 cases since the illness was first reported in the state in March Saturday with 43 new confirmed cases. Wednesday saw the second consecutive day of recoveries in patients infected outpacing new cases as the state total came to 1,605 with 380 probable cases. A Sweetwater County man accounted for the 22nd COVID-19-related death reported in the Cowboy State on Tuesday.
Albany County had reported a total of 46 confirmed coronavirus cases with 21 active cases as of Wednesday afternoon, an increase of five confirmed cases in a week.
Local retailers split on mask requirements
More local retailers are asking customers to mask up in Laramie, including Walmart, which announced Wednesday its stores would require customers to wear masks starting Monday.
Safeway implemented an updated policy this week, going from asking customers to wear masks to asking that they do not enter the store without them.
At Ridley’s, there isn’t currently a mask requirement in place, but store manager Dan Kelly said it’s likely coming in the near future.
“We haven’t had a definitive ‘yes,’ but it will happen,” Kelly said.
Kelly said it would be up to staff to enforce the policy.
“We’re not calling law enforcement (to report policy violations),” Kelly said. “We’re going to police it the best we can even though our job is to put groceries on the shelves. But we’ll be asking people to please abide if there’s a mandate put in place.”
Inquiries to Safeway about enforcement were not returned before deadline Wednesday.
Walmart announced in a blog post it would create “Health Ambassador” job positions to enforce it’s policy.
“Our ambassadors will receive special training to help make the process as smooth as possible for customers,” the post reads. “The ambassadors, identifiable by their black polo shirts, will work with customers who show up at a store without a face covering to try and find a solution. We are currently considering different solutions for customers when this requirement takes effect on July 20.”
Big Hollow Food Co-Op in Laramie’s downtown is requesting that shoppers wear masks but also so far is stopping short of a mandate.
“We’re not forcing people out of the store for not wearing masks,” Jeff Hubbell, operations manager said.
Hubbell said store management was watching the city council vote on Tuesday, and doesn’t know what the decision to not move forward with a face mask resolution means for Big Hollow’s mask policy.
Gordon stood firmly behind businesses implementing mask orders on Wednesday, rebuking those who would criticize such a policy.
“If you have a problem with that, go sue them,” Gordon said.
Jackson order still in limbo
A mask mandate for most public places in Jackson is still in limbo more than two weeks after the Teton District health officer requested one, the Jackson Hole News and Guide reported Wednesday.
The Jackson Town Council quickly passed an emergency ordinance before the July 4 weekend in hopes of implementing a requirement before the holiday. Dr. Travis Riddell, Teton District Health officer, first sent the order June 30, then sent a revised order July 7, the News and Guide reported. So far the state has not responded to allow an order to go forward.
Harrist said the order for Teton County was under consideration in the Attorney General’s office and that she did not have a timeline for a decision.